Why Do They Do That?

Watching the final game of the NBA playoffs Tuesday night was a great illustration of how people’s functioning can go up and down. The LA Lakers, historically and currently one of the top basketball teams, lost to the Boston Celtics by a record-breaking 39 points for a title-clinching game. Why?

Whether you are a basketball fan or not, do you wonder why people do what they do? This week one of the leaders I coach said he realized how much time he spent trying to figure out people’s motivation. He said, “As if once we know, it would make any difference…” He’s learning instead to pay attention to behavior. For example, if you’ve got a difficult board member, it’s more productive to notice what he does and when than to spend energy thinking about why he does it. Motivation is a tricky matter: how often do I even understand myself and why I do what I do, anyway?

The question “why?” is not that useful when we are considering other people’s behavior. In many ways it is unanswerable. Even if there is an answer, we’re not likely to be able to find it. And if we spend a lot of time considering someone else’s motivation, we’ll have less time to think through our own purpose, goals and plan.

Here are some questions that may be more useful:

“Who is motivated?” Working with people who are motivated to change or to make a difference is always more productive than trying to motivate or second-guess those who are digging in their heels.

“Why now?” What is going on in the larger organization that might be causing the overall level of anxiety to go up enough to affect someone’s behavior? For example, uncertainty about a transition in top leadership may translate into problem behavior at lower levels.

“What do I think?” Thinking through your own principles and goals is always a good use of time. And being clear about your own bottom line in relation to a particular situation or individual’s behavior may help them function better. If you know what you will and won’t put up with, your own anxiety will go down, which helps everyone. For example, in the case of a volunteer who is chronically not showing up, if you get clear that you’d rather replace them than scramble at the
last minute, you can take a stand.

When someone’s behavior becomes a problem, it’s easy to spend a lot of time, both at work and outside, thinking about them. Another question might be, “Are you thinking more about them than they are about you or their work?” If the answer is yes, turn your attention back to your own goals, which will help you get clarity about how to deal with them.

Remaining curious about others, and noticing how they function, can be helpful. This is not the same as asking “Why do they do that?” in frustration. Spending emotional energy on frustration (for more than the inevitable half-hour or so) will keep you from a thoughtful response to the behavior. Taking the time to think through the questions above, and how to respond, will help you move toward your goals.

4 replies on “Why Do They Do That?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    I do know it’s possible to spend literally hours trying to figure out someone’s behavior. I think in the most challenging situations asking someone “why” straight out may not get us very far. Even if we do, remember Murray Bowen’s suggestion to pay more attention to what people do than what they say. Jesus addressed this question with the parable about man who had two sons, and the one said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard but actually went, and the other said he would go but didn’t. (Matt. 21:28-31).

    In church personnel matters, I do think getting really clear about who is responsible for what (hiring, supervision, firing) is very important–and often not done well.

  • Betty Johnson

    Trying to figure out “Why” a person engages in certain behaviors (as the article cautions us against) may be different then asking them straight out, “Why did you do that?” I guess. I wonder though what dynamics, or anxiety we might be evoking in another when we ask why they engage in a behavior that frustrates, or seems to challenge us. I imagine in some cases, it would simply lead to clarification and resolve the frustration. But I’m also thinking that it might engage one in a power struggle if we’re not careful. No one is going to answer the question, “Because you asked me not to!” 🙂 Since we’re always working toward lowering the level of anxiety in any system, I wonder where the question “Why did you do that?” fits in. I think I will take your suggestion Mike, and try this approach though, even given my initial wondering thoughts. Thank you!

  • mike cunningham

    When faced with puzzling or frustrating behavior, I often remind myself that people do what makes sense them at the time, even if it makes no sense to me. But why not ask the person directly, “Why did you do that?” You’re right, I probably can’t figure it out myself, but maybe the person with the behavior can tell me why they do it. And if they do, a new channel of communication and knowledge will be open.

  • Betty

    I found this entry so interesting given that I am in the thick of a systems upset right now. As Margaret said, “What is going on in the larger organization that might be causing the overall level of anxiety to go up enough to affect someone’s behavior? For example, uncertainty about a transition in top leadership may translate into problem behavior at lower levels.” I came to the church as pastor ten months ago. This change in leadership, has clearly caused the anxiety level of the church secretary to go up enough that her behavior has been seriously affected. I attempt to be a non-anxious presence, however the inefficiency, unteachable spirit, and insubordination, make it difficult at times! Margaret mentioned knowing our bottom line and where we need to take a stand. What about when one is very clear of their personal bottom line, it gets mutilated by another (if that is possible?), but you have no authority to replace that person, as suggested by this entry?

    Much more time and energy has been spent on the frustration of this situation than the “half-hour or so” suggested! Much more! Turning my attention back to my goals, has not really helped me to gain clarity about how to handle a situation I find myself in. I wonder what I am missing that might be helpful. (??)

    Thank you for the good insight. I will continue to ponder my goals and His will…


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