Why aren’t you asking “Why?”

Drew Bordas

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At home, I get asked “Why?” all the time. I have three young children and their capacity for questioning is nearly endless. Some recent examples: “Why can’t we have a small pig as a pet?”; “Why do we say better instead of gooder?”; and the classic, “Why do I have to take a nap?” As parents, we do our best to answer these questions because we want to encourage curiosity and an understanding of how the world works.

It struck me recently, though, that as adults at work, we sometimes lose this natural curiosity…or it is discouraged to the point where we just quit asking.

And that’s a bad thing.

Who gets to ask “Why?”

Leadership and business literature, and even pop culture, are full of stories and anecdotes encouraging leaders to ask “Why?” The goal is often to improve or even eliminate practices that were once necessary, but may be no longer. The lesson here is: fight against organizational inertia and question the mantra, “But we’ve always done it that way.”

A few favorite stories that illustrate this point nicely:

This is an important lesson for any leader to embrace. However, I’d like to encourage a different twist for leaders and managers: does your team truly have the same permission to ask “Why?”

Considerations and blind spots

Do people in your organization do things “because you said so?”

Compliance is a wonderful thing, but compliance without context rarely leads to optimal solutions. A healthy organization should be able to debate and have constructive dialogue around organizational initiatives. The goal isn’t to ask why like a four-year old (why, why, why, why…), or to grind all progress to a halt with questions that have been covered. The goal is to come up with a solution from diverse points of view without fear of questioning managers and leaders.

Do you know the downstream impact of your directions and ideas?

When a team won’t question, an incredible amount of effort can be spun up that the leader is unaware of and never intended to happen. To guard against this, I’ve found myself proactively providing qualifiers to my team when the “direction” is more of an idea or suggestion: “This is just an idea,” “Don’t turn the world upside-down to answer this question,” and “Do not spend more than two hours on this.”  The desire to please the boss can create a lot of unnecessary work that no one ends up happy about.

How do you react when your direction is questioned?

Actions speak louder than words. All of this wonderful theory goes right out the window if the first time you are questioned, a public dressing-down occurs for the questioner. The team will learn quickly not to be on the receiving end of that.

I personally have found two benefits when my directions are debated among my team.

  1. I may not have explained myself clearly and additional context is needed to get everyone to understand.
  2. I may not have thought the idea through as thoroughly as I should.

Gasp—leaders are human, too. Something that is a gut feel or directional in nature may shift dramatically with new facts. As a leader, you have to be open to the possibility that you can occasionally be wrong.

Questioning becomes infectious (in a good way)

Once your team sees for themselves that a leader can be constructively questioned without dire personal consequences, the quality of dialogue and decision making increases dramatically. Your team has brains—and this is a way to let them use them. An unintended outcome I’ve seen from this is collaboration among the team (in my absence even), around ideas and thoughts that aren’t completely baked. You can get ideas out in the open without fear that they must be perfect to be discussed. You prevent wasted time and make faster, better decisions. Once your team gets in this rhythm, encountering other departments or groups that may not have “permission to ask why” sends off alarm bells in their heads—for the better of the organization.

Lastly…remember to ask yourself “why” as often as possible. You may be surprised to find out that something you thought was written in stone is just a set of assumptions.

And that’s a gooder place to be.