Why People Do the Things They Do

(There is a part of me that could swear I’ve already covered this thought. But I can find no proof of it. If I repeat myself – forgive me. I’ll try and do better next time. If, on the other hand, I have not – well, then, in your best Emily Litella voice, repeat after me: “Never mind.”)

As auditors, we all spend a lot of our time trying to figure out why things happen. Why did those errors occur? Why did the supervisor not sign those requisitions? Why did the secretary steal all those erasers? Why did the CEO take off to Tahiti with the pension funds? Why did I ever decide to become an auditor in the first place?
Well, I know there are complicated answers to each of these questions. And it is those complications that keep us all gainfully employed.   In fact, that is why so many people spend so much time trying to get better at identification of root causes. Why did such and such occur? We must find the root cause.
But, I am reminded of something that I first heard from Harlan Ellison. At its most basic –the root cause if you will - there is only one answer to the question of why anyone did anything. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Why did those errors occur? Because not focusing seemed like a good idea at the time. Why did the supervisor not sign those requisitions? Because not bothering with the signatures seemed like a good idea at the time. Why did the secretary steal all those erasers? Because taking them seemed like a good idea at the time. Why did the CEO take off to Tahiti? Because the trip and associated funding from the pension seemed like a good idea at the time. Why did I become an auditor? Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I am not being flip. Rather, I think we get so engrossed in our root causes and our attempts to find out why things happen that we lose perspective. We are not working with facts and figures, with credits and debits, with controls, with governance, with strategies and plans and structures and departments and org charts and policies and procedures and theory and tactics and workpapers and tests and metrics and reports and corrective actions and all those things that seem so important at the time. What we are working with are people.
And people (at the risk of sounding redundant) are human.
And why do people do the things they do? Sure it may be because controls are not adequate or being ignored. But in actuality, it’s because something bad happened or something good happened or something normal happened. And, because the root cause is that people are just too busy being people to care about our controls, it is a good idea to step back and remember that everyone is going through something. And any action anyone takes, to them, seems like a good idea at the time.
(Did I really write this one before? Danged if I remember. But writing it now certainly seems like a good idea at the time.)

Posted on Aug 8, 2011 by Mike Jacka

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  1. Bravo! Enjoying your writing always. Did you issue any book already?

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