Correlation versus Causation

My kids are in middle school and high school, and they were telling me this morning about one of their recent lessons about the difference between correlation and causation. Apparently you can show a statistically significant correlation between a decrease in highway traffic deaths and an increase in imports of Mexican lemons (who knew?!). But this is just correlation–it doesn’t prove causation. You shouldn’t go out and buy Mexican lemons in order to reduce the number of traffic deaths.

This is a lesson we need to revisit when it comes to our “best practices” in leadership and management. There are a lot of management practices out there that are very consistently used by companies that are incredibly successful, but is it correlation, or causation? Do we actually know that these companies are successful BECAUSE of the management practices they employ?

I don’t think so. In fact, based on the research we did in writing Humanize, I’m leaning towards the idea that our companies are successful IN SPITE OF the way we manage them. I think over the years we’ve done a lot to convince ourselves that our management is actually causing our success (even in the face of contradictory evidence–see Pfeffer and Sutton’s Hard Facts book for lots of examples), so now we’re almost afraid to admit that we really don’t know.

Yes, it usually comes back to fear. Courage is moving forward, even though you don’t know how it’s going to work out. Acknowledging that you don’t know is important, and courageous. If we could start from that place when it comes to management, we’d have a lot more opportunity for innovation, which means unlocking new value.


  1. 20.01.2013 at 5:01 pm

    This is excellent Jamie. And yay for the great stuff your kids are learning in school, and how you talk to them about it!

    • 21.01.2013 at 10:44 am

      Thanks Rosa! Yes, it’s the primary benefit of driving them to school every morning–the conversations we have about school.

  2. […] We managers can be maddening in the way we hold on to our assumptions about our people. Here’s the newsflash: People change, and they’ll change under your watch, whether because of you, or in spite of you. […]

  3. Stephen Johnson
    26.01.2013 at 11:19 pm

    This is great – thanks for this! I am the creator of the lemons v. highway fatality graph. It brought a smile to my face to hear that you kids heard about it in school.

    The original editorial, which was about how scientists often fool themselves by falling prey to fallacy is here: