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Effective People Management

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Posted 10 June 2011 by Chris FarmerChris Farmer

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Effective People Management

The key question WHY?

Everyone loves the question WHY?
Toddlers keep pestering their mothers with WHY questions.


  • Why is the sky blue?
  • Why does the cat wag its tail?
  • Why is it snails have shells?

The "why" question is so common, because we instinctively know that we need to understand the causes of events.

If we understand the causes of an event, it gives us the feeling that we may be able to influence the event and make it correspond to our own best interests.
If we don't understand the causes of events, then we feel we cannot control them.
If we cannot control events, then we become victims of circumstances:

And that sounds like bad news.

Asking "why?" is to find the causes of things.

We need to understand the causes of things!

But, did you know that there are four types of causation? I.e. four different ways to answer the

"WHY Question"; or four different ways to ask the WHY? Question.

The four causes

The four causes are called:

  1. The material cause
  2. The formal cause
  3. The mental cause
  4. The efficient cause

If you have not heard of these four causes, then keep reading, because knowing them will help you to think more accurately and ask better questions.

Let us take an Example
The Titanic sank on 15 April 1912. She hit the iceberg four days into the crossing, on 14 April 1912, and sank resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people.

How would you go about writing an account of the causes of that event?

You list the four causes and answer each type in turn, like this .......

The four causes:

  1. The material cause
  2. The formal cause
  3. The mental cause
  4. The efficient cause

The material cause

The material cause of an event makes reference to the nature and composition of the materials involved.

That means making reference to their physical characteristics and properties.

The material cause looks at the physical and chemical nature of the things involved.

Whether something is:

  • Metallic and hard
  • Organic and soft
  • Flammable or not
  • Toxic or not

In our example: Making reference to the facts that;

  1. The Titanic was a ship made of iron
  2. Icebergs are frozen water and are hard and compact enough to cause damage to iron
  3. The sea was calm
  4. The sea was cold

The material causes principle:

When thinking about WHY something happened, first think about the physical nature of the things involved.

The formal cause

The formal cause is the design or arrangement of the elements.

Everything has a design
For example: a car is made up of certain materials but in order to function as a car, all the elements must be arranged in specific way: if I dumped all the components of a car onto your front lawn, and said "Here is your new car," You would not be pleased.

The formal causes principle:

The formal cause makes reference to the design or arrangements of the parts that have contributed to the event.


In 1912, the TITANIC sank, for many reasons: some of them were formal, design reasons.

  1. The rudder was too small for the ship to manoeuvre quickly.
  2. There were insufficient life boats on board.
  3. The watertight bulk heads were not deigned to be high enough.

The mental cause

The mental cause is the human thought processes that were contributing to the event.
This cause references the motive, intentions and purposes of the people involved, that contributed to the event taking place.
The mental cause would make reference to goals, ideas, desires, feelings and emotions of the people who acted, and thus caused the event.

The Titanic sank because the captain wanted to break a new Atlantic crossing record.

There was a belief that the ship was unsinkable.
The efficient cause
The efficient cause is the" trigger event".

The efficient cause is the obvious event that, given the previous facts of Materials, Designs, Intentions that made the event theoretically possible, constituted the spark that triggered the event to happen, in practice.

In our example: the efficient cause was "The Titanic struck an iceberg"
It is important to realise the fact that if a ship strikes an iceberg, that does not, in it-self, mean that the ship will sink: other factors must also be in place.

Use the four causes as a questioning technique

Don't just keep asking WHY? WHY? WHY?

Be more specific

  1. Ask: What materials were being used, and did those materials contribute to the event?
  2. Ask: What elements of the design or structure of the things involved, caused the event?
  3. Ask: Who had what motives in mind, and how did they contribute to the event?
  4. Ask: Given the facts listed above made the event possible, what was the trigger event that made it happen in practice?

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