Why ‘Why’ is the X Factor

Ever since we were kids, we have always asked the question “Why?” – “Why can’t I have any candy?”, “Why can’t we go to Florida?”, “Why can’t Johnny sleep over?”  All of us, in unison, can repeat the answer we were most commonly given by our parents – “Because I said so.”

Interestingly enough, our insatiable need to know ‘why’ did not abate as we entered the workforce, and I increasingly see the manner in which companies respond to the ‘why’ question as critical inflection points that drive organizational culture, and in turn drive (or limit) overall organizational success.

As a general rule, people want purpose in their lives.  We seek purpose in our family relationships, our social networks, our ‘off time’ (church, volunteering, leisure activities, etc.), and if we are lucky enough, our vocations (unfortunately, not everyone is passionate about their current career position.)  We want to be working toward something, we want to add value, we want to make a difference, we want to understand how what we do is an important part of a bigger objective. We are generally not interested in just punching a clock, taking orders, going through a rote routine, and repeating it day after day.

We want to know ‘why?’

  • “Why am I being asked to do this?”
  • “Why is this important?”
  • “Why did we choose to take this approach as opposed to that one?”
  • “Why is my role changing?”
  • “Why are we implementing this new system?”

The ‘why’ questions are endless because committed, motivated employees actually want to fully support our companies’ missions and strategies.  They want to know how what they do each day supports those objectives, but all too often we as leaders are still giving “because I said so” answers.  Few things are more culture killing than giving what is effectively a response that a parent would give to a nine-year old.

Successful leadership unleashes the passion that exists in all motivated employees by explaining how the decisions you make, and the work you ask them to do, contributes to achieving the organizational objective.

For example, let’s say you institute a new procedure that requires an additional step to your current sales process.  You choose to send a bland communication to your team that simply states “you are now required to complete this new form every time you take an order.” With no further context, this change will in all likelihood be viewed as ‘just more bureaucratic paperwork’ by your staff.  Alternatively, if, when you communicate the new procedure, you explain that the new form will allow the company to do a more effective job segmenting the market, leading to a more effective targeting of sales prospects and thus drive new revenue opportunities, you have directly addressed the ‘why’.  You have clearly stated why the form is important to the organization’s success.  The employees who need to complete the new form will have the knowledge that if they do their part well, they will have played a valuable role in increasing the revenue of the company.

With the economic expansion reaching its ten-year anniversary and labor markets incredibly tight, it becomes increasingly important to maintain a corporate culture in which your employees understand exactly why they do what they do each day, and how what you ask of them contributes to your organization’s success, and their own individual success.  Those leaders that consistently answer the ‘why?’ with clarity and conviction will find that achieving alignment of purpose throughout their organization is seldom an issue.


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