Capability Insights Consulting



Context Is Everything

Posted on May 3, 2010 at 7:42 AM

While Capability Insights is all about pragmatically helping you improve your organization; this is after all a blog and will occasionally wander off on tangents and reflections on leadership. Such is the case today! I promise though to tie today’s wandering back to leadership and the previous posts on management of change...


People are neither rational nor logical. Google either of those words and the definitions will look something like:

  • Definition of rational - consistent with or based on or using reason
  • Definition of logical - capable of or reflecting the capability for correct and valid reasoning

The best boss I ever had would sit quietly while I railed, complained or ranted on the perceived issue of the day, then look over and gently say, “Brenda, you are expecting people to be rational and logical.” Now, if you hear that enough, and believe me I heard it a lot, you have to start thinking about what it means. I was forced to consider how this statement affected me and the projects I was trying to lead.


I considered that perhaps I was capable of logic but “they” were not. There were 3 serious issues with this possibility:

  1. Based on my previous statement about people not being logical or rational, I would have been a non-person.
  2. The arrogance of such an assumption would surely astound even the most Trump-like amongst us.
  3. And pragmatically, I had seen “them” be logical and rational many times before so I knew this possibility was not realistic.

At that point the light bulb went on for me. “They” were being rational and logical when I understood the reasons behind their actions or behaviours. When I was not aware of the reasons, the actions and behaviour appeared illogical and irrational. What did this mean for me:

  • I stopped ranting and starting asking. If someone involved with a project was not acting or behaving like I expected I simply asked what was going on for them. Sometimes they had valid reasons that needed to be considered as part of the project implementation. Occasionally I disagreed with their reasons. At least we had the basis for a good discussion that didn’t exist before I asked.
  • I started making the project and change rationale visible early and frequently. Way too often I found that peoples’ personal reasons for their actions were based on assumptions about the rationale of the project and change. It is just so much easier to get everyone on the same page as early as possible!

So, in fact, people are quite rational and logical when you understand the context they are working within. Good thing since my whole light-bulb process feels quite logical and I’m now in no danger of being a non-person!


What does this mean generally for leadership and for managing change in your organization?

  • Help people understand your reasons for the improvement initiative and the change. The people in your organization have an almost insatiable need to see their leaders being logical and rational. More importantly, they will make assumptions about the rational. Those assumptions are often wrong. See the post Just What is the First Step to Managing Change for more on this.
  • Ask questions. Solicit feedback. Find out about the personal context. You will very likely learn things that allow you to tweak your project for the better. Listening willingly is also a necessary skill for a leader. This expands the communication talked about in the post Organizational Change Isn’t to an improved two way communication.

By the way, I’m not suggesting that irrationality and poor logic don’t exist; just that we jump to that conclusion more often than necessary. And it hurts our ability to improve our organizations.




Categories: management of change, leadership

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1 Comment

Reply Kristin Nickells
3:11 PM on May 18, 2010 
This is a great article, Brenda. As an Executive Coach, I completely agree with your approach of asking questions, aka the 'coach approach'! I would go one step further on your comment regarding helping people to understand your reasons and rationale for change - in order for change to be truly effective, you must have buy in - accomplished by determining the sense of urgency that will make your reasons, everyone's reasons.
Kristin Nickells, CEC