Home » Leadership » Know Thyself: A Root Cause Analysis On You

Know Thyself: A Root Cause Analysis On You

Everything we do, we do with purpose. It’s just that sometimes we don’t understand the true purpose behind our actions.

Very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do…. 
By “why” I mean: ‘What’s your purpose?”
‘What’s your cause?” “What”s your belief?”
Simon Sinek

If you want to understand your purpose – to really dig down deep and understand yourself better – consider the following exercise. I call it a Root Cause Analysis on Yourself.

If you commit to this root cause analysis exercise and you haven’t done anything like this before, you will get uncomfortable. But if you do commit, that discomfort could fade from memory as you see more clearly just what drives you.

We all do what we do for a reason. But in our hectic culture, we tend to leave our analysis of “why” at a shallow, single layer of thinking. But why we do what we do goes far deeper than the surface. There is a spiral staircase that descends far below the first step of reason to determine why you do what you do. And until you make the descent, you never really know just why you are the way you are.

Reason alone does not suffice…
Your vision will become clear
only when you look into your heart …
Who looks outside, dreams.
Who looks inside, awakens.

C.G. Jung

A methodical journey deep into the rarely-explored territory called you is worth the effort.

Step 1: Identify an Action for Root Cause Analysis

This is the easiest thing you will do on your journey down the twisting staircase and back. Identify one particular action for root cause analysis. Then phrase it in the form of a question.

Example: Why do I keep putting off Project X when I know I need to work on it now?

Step 2: Identify the Reason that Drives You to that Action

This step is almost as simple as Step 1, but requires a healthy dose of honesty and accuracy. For example, your answer to putting off Project X may seem like “because I don’t want to do it.” While that may be true, it is not a reason. Dig deeper and be honest. Perhaps the reason you keep putting off Project X is because you are unfamiliar with the technical specifics of the project to even begin to know how to delegate, and you really don’t think you have time for the tough, uninterrupted concentration in order to understand. And if you really think about it, you are putting off Project X because you enjoy Projects A, B, and C so much that Project X would just taint the fun you are having.

Whatever the reason, after you are sure that you are being honest and accurate, write down your answer in the form of a complete sentence.

Example: I am putting off Project X because I don’t understand it enough to get started, and I don’t want to spend the time it takes to understand it, and I don’t want it to distract me from the more enjoyable Projects A, B, and C.

Step 3: Identify the Feeling(s) You Want to Feel

Your reason is just an intellectual reduction of your feelings. It’s time to unpack the intellect from its little box and get it out into the open where you can see the feelings that drive it.

Your feeling may be a complex soup of multiple feelings, and each ingredient may seem vague or elusive. That’s okay. Don’t get discouraged. In our example, the feelings you want to feel may be any or all of these in varying degrees of intensity…

  • I want to feel in control of the projects on my plate, and Project X makes me feel helpless or out of control, so I am focusing on Projects A, B, and C because I feel I am in control of them.
  • I want to feel competent, and I want my boss and colleagues to see me as competent, and if I dive into Project X I may just discover that it is beyond my capabilities of understanding without asking for help, and to ask for help reveals that I am not competent. Therefore, I will focus on other projects where my competence shines and I can feel better about myself.
  • I want to feel good at work socially, and the only person here that might be able to help me is Jimmy. But I don’t like Jimmy. Jimmy is arrogant and carves fiefdoms into everything he touches. I can’t understand this project without Jimmy, but if I bring him into this, I will lose partial control of the project to Jimmy and he will see me as incompetent. So I’m not going to go near Jimmy, but I don’t know how else to understand this project.

After you identify your feelings, continue answering your original question my modifying your answer with your new discoveries as concisely as you can.

Example: I am putting off Project X because I don’t know how to begin and still feel competent, in control, and socially positive.

Step 4: Identify the Desire(s) that Fuels Your Feelings

You may think your desire to have the feelings you want is just that – a simple desire to have those feelings. Remember, though, you are deeper now, and the desire that fuels these feelings also fuels other feelings and other reasons and other actions. You are looking more for the general desire that creates these feelings.

What desire(s) drive you to feel competent? You desire that people think about you positively, and competence is a feeling that fulfills that desire. You desire a sense of accomplishment that is independent of what people think about you, and being competent in your own mind is confirmation of that accomplishment.

What about control? You desire to feel in control because you want your trajectory toward all of your goals in life to be stable and on target. To feel out of control is to feel lost and unable to move toward fulfilling your dreams.

And you desire your social life to be free from conflict and uncertainty, so you avoid people who may introduce either.

Whatever your case, work hard at identifying those desires and add them to your ongoing analysis.

Example: I am putting off Project X because I don’t know how to begin…

  • And still feel competent. I desire competence in Project X so that my boss, my coworkers, and my colleagues think of me as the right person for this job. Trying to understand Project X makes me feel incompetent.

  • And still feel in control. I desire control of Project X so that I can steer this project from beginning to end without instability along the way. I don’t understand Project X, and facing that fact makes me feel out of control.

  • And still feel positive socially. I desire coming out of Project X feeling good socially, and I have no one besides Jimmy that can help me – and dealing with him is a negative social experience from start to finish.

Step 5: Identify the Beliefs that Form Your Desires

Don’t lose heart at this stage, because your heart is where you are headed and you’re almost there. It’s time now to examine the beliefs that drive your desires. These are core beliefs that you hold so strongly and so near to your heart that they are almost always taken for granted as self-evident truths that require no defense and will accept no debate. In fact it would seem to you almost nonsensical to even question these beliefs because they are just true to you. They are as foundational as 1+1=2.

In addition, you believe without question that your desires are 1) worth pursuing and 2) must be pursued in a particular manner or all will be lost.

In our ongoing example, the desire to feel competent is fueled by a belief that not understanding Project X means you are incompetent, and everyone including you will believe this as well. You believe competence is worth pursuing and must be held, and the only way to get there is to understand this project in some way (probably alone), without Jimmy’s help because Jimmy will shine a light on your incompetence.

The desire to feel in control stems from a belief that not understanding Project X prevents you from having control and that this lack of control will slow or damage your ability to steer your career along your intended path. You believe this control must be gained, and that understanding this project is the key to that control, and that Jimmy – though he could help you understand – would take away some or all of that control.

And finally, your desire to feel good socially springs from the well of belief that interpersonal conflict creates unwanted feelings. The lack of conflict, especially the type that Jimmy brings to the table, keeps things positive and feeling well. Therefore you believe you absolutely must understand this project, and understand it without any assistance from Jimmy.

To sum up our example…

I am putting off Project X because I don’t know how to begin and still feel competent, in control, and socially positive. I believe I cannot attain these feelings without understanding and moving forward on this project – and without Jimmy’s help. But I am clueless on how and where to begin.

Step 6: Identify the Choices You Have Made That Lead To Your Beliefs

Welcome to the core of your being – your heart. This is the control room where all your decisions are made, though you rarely come down here consciously. This is the place where you come to an understanding of who you are – where you have an opportunity to truly know thyself.

It is in this room where you make the choices that ultimately lead to all of your actions. It is here where you make decisions to believe what is true, what should be pursued and in what manner.

The key here is to take an objective look at the choices you have made and to see if there is any room for adjustment. Any changes in choices will lead to a change in beliefs and ultimately to a change in action.

Three points to consider about your choices. Even if you believe strongly that there is no point in analyzing your core choices, humor yourself with this exercise and see if you are right.

  1. Is your choice to accept your belief(s) as true a good one? Why did you make that choice? (overwhelming scientific evidence, trust in an authority figure, experience, faith, etc.) Is it at all possible that your choice is wrong or incorrect? Is admitting that you do not know enough about Project X equal to incompetence? Is there any room to at least choose that your belief might not be entirely correct? Perhaps others would not see you as incompetent for simply sharing that you do not understand and need help. Example: I choose to believe that admitting I do not currently understand Project X will make me look and feel incompetent. Though I cannot see any way to change my choice, I admit that there is a possibility that I will not feel incompetent if I do decide to ask for help. But with Jimmy in the picture, I cannot see admitting this publicly.Once you reach the core belief that ultimately drives, at least in part, your action under root cause analysis, it is time to turn to resources that will either confirm your belief as the right one or challenge you to make some adjustments.

    Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, then I won’t be worthy of connection?

    This is how researcher Brene’ Brown defines shame – a better word for your fear of being seen as incompetent. If you have not already, spend the short 20 minutes it takes to watch her do a root-cause analysis on herself in this Ted Talk and come face to face with the belief that shame is to be avoided at all costs and how she changed that belief about herself and how she is now helping others discover the power of vulnerability.

    This is just one example of how long-held beliefs at the core of your being can actually need change and be changed. This change then sends you back up the staircase with a new stride, altering how you feel and how you act. In this case, for example, you might choose to call a meeting with all of your relevant direct reports (including Jimmy) and explain that the time has come to begin Project X, but that you admit you are completely clueless because you have not had time to focus on it and you need help. You declare your vulnerability honestly, and, to everyone’s amazement, perhaps you actually turn to Jimmy publicly and say, “Jimmy, would you take the lead on this? I would very much appreciate your insights.”

    This might be more risk than you can take, but it is an example for consideration. Meditate on your own issue under analysis, consider the advice of Brene Brown or others that you respect on the matter, and move forward with the best fit for your particular situation.

  2. Is your choice to pursue things based on your beliefs worth expending your energy? You may believe that gravity is the reason you weigh too much, but it would be ludicrous to consider changing gravity to lose weight. Consider the uncontrollable circumstances around you as gravity. If Jimmy and his personality are here to stay, then don’t waste your energies trying to change the force of Jimmy – worrying about how he sees you; avoiding him so that he can’t make you feel negative socially; anxious about how he might be talking about your incompetence to others.Instead, turn the gravitational forces around you into your strengths by utilizing tools that work to your advantage. Don’t waste energies on what you can’t change. Focus your energies on achieving your goals with what you can.
  3. Is your method of pursuit – the chosen object you believe will fulfill your desire and the path you choose to attain it – the right or best way? This is where most people choose a belief vector that leads to poor choices. The choice to believe in something may be entirely true, but the choice to assign a tangible goal and method of pursuit to attain it may be entirely misdirected.

    The most painful discovery about yourself may be that you are right through and through about what you want, but wrong entirely about how to attain it.

    For example, let’s say that you choose to that believe peace is worthy of pursuit. You desire to feel peace. However, somewhere along the way you experienced a two-week, luxurious vacation that put you at ease from a terrible month at work. The peace you experienced on that vacation might make you believe that the best way to attain peace is to have the maximum amount of time possible spent on luxurious getaways like this one. So you go back to work after this vacation and face work and peace begins to seem elusive. You become frustrated by your lack of remaining vacation hours. You stare at your bank account balance and realize there will be no more vacations like this for some time. Now your mood changes, and with it, your goals. You become obsessed with obtaining more vacation and more money, and it is clear that you won’t find it any time soon in your current job, so you begin job hunting or seeking a way to create a new start-up that will make you rich. Before long, you fail to recognize the said irony that you are making yourself miserable while seeking what you believe is the one true path to peace.

    This is simplified example, but resonates with many people who spend their lives on a similar treadmill. Is it possible that peace can be attained without limitless funds? Without a life of luxury? Without the “freedom” to do what you want, when you want, how you want, with whom you want? Is it possible that peace can be yours through other methods – giving to others; spending quality time with your spouse, children, family, and friends; tending to your spiritual nature; investing positive change in your company so that others benefit; etc?

    If you believe your beliefs are solid, but something still isn’t working, learn how to separate them from the methodology you think will help you achieve your goals. This painful separation may be difficult after years of unseen adhesive have made them seemingly inseparable. This breakaway is important, because on your current path you may never actually attain the very things you seek if you have unknowingly misaligned the goal with the methodology.

Step 7 – Ascend the Stairway With a Clear Understanding of Who You Are and How to Change

With a fresh perspective on what it is that is really driving your actions, and perhaps with the realization that there are changes you need to make, come back to the world at hand and approach life with a stronger alignment of you core choices with your actions. You may just find that when you understand and embrace who you really are that you attain the very goals that were so elusive before you took the time to descend that staircase.

In our ongoing example, you may find that you are now ready to begin Project X in many different ways…

  1. Take the time to do the research yourself. You just may find that it all comes together and you are ready to meet with your team and delegate the responsibilities to get it done.
  2. Get others involved in getting it started. Admit you are struggling with having the time and mindshare to understand it and get it going.
  3. Take Jimmy out to lunch privately and thank him for his work so far and ask him if he would consider taking lead on the project because you think he very competent. Often when someone else is trying to punch holes in your competence, it is because they feel that their own competence is not adequately recognized.

Every time you sense that you don’t understand why you are taking a particular course of action, this root-cause analysis can help. Each experience will have its own texture and tone in various contexts. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Why do I get frustrated in traffic? (Don’t forget gravity in Step 6)
  2. Why do I hate my job?
  3. Why do I love my job?
  4. Why does __________ perceive me as _______ when I know I’m not like that?
  5. Why doesn’t __________ perceive me as ______ when I know I am like that?
  6. Why am I so obsessed with ________?
  7. Why do I have a bad habit of __________?
  8. Why am I so unhappy right now?
  9. Why am I so content right now?
  10. Why do I get up in the morning and do what I do all day?

Good luck! I would love to hear about how this exercise, or one of your own devising, works for you.

Brian Shipman is the CIO of Heritage Auctions. He is also a published author and speaker. To learn more, visit his blog or follow him on Twitter,


  1. I included the tag “emotional stability” after seeing an article on HBR posted today that addresses dealing with emotions on the job and does a basic root-cause analysis with a different take. Here is the link if that very-well-written article helps as well: http://hbr.org/2013/11/emotional-agility/

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