Tool #5: Causal Links

Page 1 of 5: Understanding Causal Interdependencies

Habit Cards


Begin by reading the following excerpt and notice all of the words and phrases Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to highlight the importance of causal interdependencies.

A Christmas Sermon on Peace
Dr. King first delivered this sermon on Christmas Eve, 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served as co-pastor.


It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can't leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that's handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that's given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that's poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that's poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you're desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that's poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that's given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren't going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

The ability to make causal connections and identify interdependencies in systems in order to see the big picture is what systems thinking is all about. Systems thinkers are drawn to connections between parts and can get frustrated when systems are fragmented or siloed. This limited view can generate misconceptions and ineffective problem-solving and decision-making. Being able to see interdependencies, explore causal relationships and anticipate effects of actions takes intentional practice. Again, everything happens for a reason, so when things go well, it is good to know why. On the other hand, when situations go awry, it is equally important to understand the causal attributes that lead to disappointing results.

Let’s get started with causal links.

First, we want to stay focused on things that change over time and not merely events that cause things to happen. Think about moments in school when you were asked to list the events that caused particular things in history to occur. What were the events that caused the Civil War in the United States? What were the events that caused the fall of the Roman Empire? These surface level questions can become much more informative and relevant when we replace the word “events” with “trends.” Seeing trends versus a focus on events will deepen your understanding of systems and will build your practice as a systems thinker.

Here is a story that illustrates this point. A violent act occurred in a community in the southwestern U.S. An unidentified active shooter targeted a politician and her supporters during a public event in the parking lot of a grocery store. Several people were killed and many others were seriously wounded, including the politician. The community was greatly impacted by this horrific event. In schools across the region, educators were fully prepared to provide support and counseling for children when they came to school on Monday. In one classroom, where the Habits of a Systems Thinker were actively practiced, a young 7-year old girl was talking about what happened. Her systems thinking wisdom was applied to this horrible event as she said, “We need to pay attention to this trend and change the direction of the line (she was actually pointing to a BOTG at the time) so that people become more kind.” This young girl was able to look beyond the horrific event and proactively consider the importance of the causal factors in a system that could possibly prevent this one-time occurrence from becoming a trend. We need this kind of thinking in our leaders, our schools, our governments, our businesses and our communities.

As you deepen your understanding of events — either those that are troublesome or those that are fortunate, systems thinkers take the time to quickly ask two questions:

“Is this a one-time event or is this a pattern?” and

“If this is a recurring event, i.e. something that’s trending, what could be causing this pattern?”

Without this brief moment of reflection, you can potentially arrive at a misunderstanding that could cause bigger problems or be viewed as a missed opportunity to capitalize on good things to come. Let’s look at a workplace example.

Workplace Example

Lance was a supervisor who noticed that Janet arrived late to an important early morning meeting. Lance took a moment to quickly reflect on Janet’s past behaviors and considered the question, “Is this a one-time event or a pattern?” He realized that this was not the first late arrival and that this tendency had become a pattern over time.

Without causal reflection, Lance quickly considered his possible reactions:

  1. Do nothing, but he became aware that deep down inside, he labeled Janet as “the one who is always late.”
  2. Respond to Janet’s lateness by asking her to please put more effort into being on time in the future.

With causal reflection, Lance could suspend his initial labeling judgement and consider possible causes for the lateness. He might even ask what support Janet might need to get to meetings on time. After all, Janet is a trusted, high-functioning employee, and there may be good, justifiable reasons for the pattern of her late arrival to early-morning meetings.

Causal factors could include:

  • Access to dependable transportation (late buses, avoidance of expensive parking, or car trouble)
  • Competing needs at home that relate to childcare, or care of an aging relative
  • Sleep deprivation because of workplace stress

Taking time to uncover causal evidence that can lead you to a greater understanding of what is occurring in your work or life is an important practice of a systems thinker.