two heads back to back, one with ordered string within it, the other a knitted ball of string.

Explanatory Placebos

Think about how much of your life you spend asking “why”.  Why didn’t I go to the gym? Why did I yell at my PA? Why can’t I stop smoking?

Much of our time is spent looking for explanations.

Why Does Why Matter?

Our brains like order. That was true for us as Neanderthals, and it remains true today.

During a drought on the savannah, plants withered and bore no fruit. Herd animals migrated away. Cave-dwellers would be hungry, unable to forage or hunt food– infants sick. Clan leaders saw the despair and offered explanations. Someone broke a rule or violated a taboo. The Gods were angry.

Explanations did not bring nourishment. But for the desperate mothers, it brought comfort.

Cognitive dissonance emerges when there is a conflict between what we expect and what we get. When we behave differently than we believe we should, or our employees fail to produce a certain result, or we realize we shouted at a peer…they all create cognitive dissonance.

We feel frustrated, helpless, or angry.  

Explanations are a salve for discomfort. But, despite making us feel better, they rarely alter anything. They are cognitive placebos. [click to tweet this thought].

Explanatory Placebo

As a non-psychologist, I don’t know much about therapy.  But one artifact of it often trickles into my coaching and consulting. The explanatory principle.

In coaching, the goal is to optimize performance, results, and quality of life. When there is a challenge on the table, I guide the conversation toward a point of leverage; a way to pry open the door of “the way it is” so that we can spot a belief or limiting context that’s creating mischief.

That may mean reframing the issue, identifying a habitual thought, or crafting a new ritual.

Sometimes before we can get that far, my client will provide me with a story explaining his behavior.

For example, “Mark” (a Founder/CEO) was disappointed with his Chief of Staff, (Aaron), who dropped the ball on a critical initiative and did a terrible job on the last Board deck. Despite that, Mark had not spoken to Aaron about it.

No one likes giving critical feedback. But it is a necessary part of leading people. And as a CEO, Mark couldn’t avoid it and succeed as CEO.

Mark and I were talking about when he and Aaron would speak and how he would frame the conversation. But, just then, Mark changed course.

He explained at length how hard it is for him to be critical, and that through therapy he has discovered that being bullied at school made him become driven to be liked.

All of that is likely true.

But it made no difference to correcting Aaron’s performance.

Here’s an Explanation. Now What?

We humans WANT to understand things.  But having an explanation is very different from changing an outcome.

Ideally, an explanation is a precursor to a solution. For example, the explanation of how coronavirus infects cells with a spike protein enabled design of vaccines that mimicked that protein.

But equally as often, explanations are psychological salves that give us no greater benefit than a placebo.

Think about recent US news. A Google search for “Why is US inflation so high?” generated 338,000,000 results in less than a second. Pages and pages of commentary explaining why prices are rising.

Do you know what none of the first 3 pages of results include? A solution.

But think of the millions of hours people have spent poring over those articles! Ah, now I understand. Whew!

The Illusion

What’s interesting about explanations –especially those that concern behavior, performance, or organizations–is that they feel like they make a difference.

Think of the last time you blew off an event. If you get called out for it, the first tool at hand is the explanation. I’m so sorry. My computer crashed and then the repair took 4 hours.

Does a great explanation equal a do-over? That can’t be right.

Of course, when you are trying to fix something, you do first need to understand the problem. And so, explanations are sometimes step one.

But consider how many explanations are never followed by any prescription, solution, or other step toward a material change.

In leadership teams I sometimes hear the exact same issue from everyone. Maybe they’re each spending weekends and nights catching up. The Engineering Director says this of a new feature, the marketing lead of a campaign, and even the CEO of the town hall he’s been promising.

“Why are you so busy”, I ask. Each person describes a meeting-filled calendar. “There’s no time to work”.

I prod further, urge them to think of solutions, offer suggestions. But, week after week, the meetings continue, as does the burnout.

After explaining it, people feel better. Like they’ve achieved something. Even though the problem is just as bad after the explanatory placebo!

If Not Explanations, What?

Explanations work –to reduce our discomfort. But, if we are committed to changing something, then we can’t afford false prophets. And discomfort comes with the territory. We don’t need to reduce it, we need to run toward it.

My own sense of it is that our years of exposure to pop psychology has lured us into fascination with reasons over results. Those reasons get us off the hook for not fixing things, whether those things are our own procrastination, a team’s performance, too many meetings, or the disorganized chief of staff.

Real problems can be unpleasant to tackle. But tackle them we must if we intend to improve ourselves, our performance, our organizations, and our lives.

Many explanations contain seeds of solutions. But if we found the solution we’d need to change. Change is hard and likely to mean discomfort. If you procrastinate, what matters is finding a way to change that. As to why you procrastinate… it only matters if it holds the key to change.

You can recognize explanatory placebos. Not just your own, but those of your peers and employees. They are the stories that never propose any solution or suggestion for a change in behavior, context, process, or product.

Push beyond the explanation and ask for a solution.  If you do that with yourself– and better yet, make it a cultural artifact for your organization– you will change the trajectory of your enterprise, and transform the lives of your team.

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