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Leading with “Why”
Small, yet powerful word, that can tell you the purpose behind the actions
One of my colleagues, recently pointed out to me that I consistently ask the question “Why?” and he really appreciates it.
This observation made me think about my pattern of conversations in meetings and I realized he was right. But, why do I like to ask “why”? Well, the answer is that it effectively gets me to the purpose behind a colleague’s or team’s actions.
The “What”, “How” and “Why” of Decision Making
In most of our conversations at work, we tend to ask questions around “What” and “How”. “What” stands for the measurement and “How” stands for the method to get to the desired “What”. But we overlook “Why”, the purpose, very often.
For example, think of the conversation with sales team when they have not achieved their targets. There is a high chance that questions will revolve around-
How did they go about executing their approach?
What went wrong?
What could they have done better?
However, asking the “Why” behind it may surface the root cause of the situation i.e why did it go wrong? Perhaps due to increasing competitive forces, or the product getting outdated or the sales team not feeling trained enough.
The “Why” becomes very important when we are thinking about strategic decisions. If you look at the two statements below, it is clear which one will drive more alignment in a company.
“We will onboard 100k new users on our app, by launching it in a new country”
What and How tell the task at hand and how to measure it
“We will onboard 100k new users on our app, by launching it in a new country, so that we can learn what it takes to expand geographically”
Adding Why tells the purpose behind the task
A version of “Why” that creates coachable moments is “Why Not?”
Recently, I met a colleague, who has been in my current company for five years now. They told me that they had some feedback for an important but different part of the business but they never shared it with the relevant leader. So instead of just asking what the feedback was about, I asked them “why not?”. This made them think about their inhibitions, stemming from the fact that the company has really grown in size over the last five years. However, they quickly realized that there was no downside to passing along the feedback and in-fact that they would be doing a great service to the company by doing this. So, they immediately shared the feedback with the relevant leader, felt great about it and most importantly the feedback was received very positively as well. A well intentioned “Why Not” can trigger action!
The Challenge Behind Asking the Question “Why”?
It seems easy enough, but asking “why” doesn’t come naturally to many leaders.
Give answers? Leaders are used to being the go-to person for answers. Giving direction to the teams and sharing opinions is an important part of the leader’s job. In fact, some leaders may even think that this makes them more valued and reinforces their authority!
Save time? Some leaders assume, in a very positive intent, that by giving answers, they are saving everyone’s time. On the contrary, by providing answers all the time, leaders unintentionally prevent their teams from becoming solution providers. Therefore, by asking the question “why”, you enable the team to think strategically and find answers.
Avoid conflict? Some leaders, who may have a high conflict avoidance nature, may think that asking “why” can be confrontational. However, I think “why” is a very well intentioned question. Just pay heed to the words you choose, your tone and avoid asking “what” and “how” when you ask “why”.
Good Leaders Ask Great Questions
Asking great questions is one of the most critical skills that a leader can develop. As leaders we should ask questions that help our teams to find the answers. When you ask “why”, you are playing a very important step in soliciting purpose-driven action.
Will you ask more “Why”s going forward? Do you believe in the power of asking the question “Why”?
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