Jun 3, 2022 3 min read

Linear Causality vs Circular Causality in Decision Making

The "if...then" way of thinking about cause and effect is common in business. Circular causality is often missed in the decision making process.

Simple explanations

Pick up any business book, especially the not so enlightened ones, and the "if...then" model is dominant. The promise follows the pattern of if you do xthen…you will get y result”. Same goes for the genre of personal development.

We are always searching for the holy grail of efficiency and execution. This model is attractive because it's easy to understand and gives us a false sense of control.

To be fair, the good ones can be effective to a certain extent. But when somehow our particular initiative does not pan out as planned, we tend to blame it on our skillset, our discipline, or worse our teams and organizations.

It's often not as straightforward as we are prone to think.

Not so simple

All models and formulas suffer from the limitations of abstraction and ideal assumptions. Our own situations are uniquely complex and nuanced in their own ways.

To make it worse, complex domains do not have repeatable cause and effects and most organizations do not understand how to operate in them.

One common mistake is to assume linear causality where in fact circular causality might be at play as well.

Here's how Ralph Stacey and Chris Mowles put it,

One way of thinking about the relationship between cause and effect in Western culture is linear and unidirectional. There is some variable Y whose behaviour is to be explained.

It is regarded as dependent and other ‘independent’ variables, _X_1, _X_2 . .., are sought that are causing it.

Linear relationships mean that if there is more of a cause then there will be proportionally more of the effect. This is the efficient ‘if . . . then’ theory of causality.

For example, in organisations, a frequent explanation for success is that it is caused by a particular culture, a particular
management style, or a particular control system. The more that culture, style or control system is applied, the more successful the organisation will be.

Opposition parties always say that the government of the day has caused recession and inflation. More of the government’s policies will, they say, lead to more recession and more inflation. All of this is what is meant by straightforward unidirectional, linear connections between cause and effect.

Many scientists, both social and natural, are increasingly realising that this view of the relationship between cause and effect is far too simplistic and leads to an inadequate understanding of behaviour. They hold that greater
insight comes from thinking in terms of mutual or circular causality.

The demand for a product does not depend simply on customer behaviour; it also depends upon what the producing firm does in terms of price and quality. In other words, the firm affects the customer who then affects the firm.

Management style may cause success but success affects the style managers adopt
. The government’s policies may cause recession and inflation, but recession and inflation may also cause the policies they adopt.

When organisms and organisations are thought of as systems, complex forms of causality to do with interconnection and interdependence become evident, where everything affects everything else.

The game is fluid and ever changing

While clearly there are linear cause and effects, we cannot ignore the circular causal effects either. Our actions change the very nature of the game as we play it.

This is one reason why a static approach to strategy can backfire. The conditions that were true at the beginning of a campaign or initiative might not be true anymore.

Consistency for consistency’s sake is not always prudent. Sticking to the old strategy instead of adapting it based on current emergent conditions, can be deadly for an initiative.

The same is true for our lives and careers as well.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

What assumptions do we need to re-examine? How does that change our approach? Given what we know now, would we undertake the same actions?

Further Reading

Want to become a better decision maker? Consider two ideas:

  • First is the ladder of inference. It's a model developed by Harvard organizational theorist and practitioner Chris Argyris that shows how we go about making decisions and taking action. I did a deep dive into the ladder of inference here.
  • Second is deliberate practice. It's one of the few proven research-backed strategies for improvement but not used in leadership as much. I examine one way to change that here.

Combining deliberate practice with the ladder of inference is a proven way to get better at decision making. Try it.

Trymy weekly email — learn mental models & frameworks the best executive coaches in the world teach their clients.📚 You also get a curated spreadsheet of 100 best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.


  1. Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics by Ralph D Stacey and Chris Mowles.

Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
Table of Contents
Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Leading Sapiens.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.