A simple Google search on “the power of why?” yields over four billion results; a truly ubiquitous idea in modern management literature. In fact, the key finding of my own doctoral research was that the most important part of ‘how’ leaders transform, is ‘why’ they want to transform in the first place.

Asking ‘why?’ goes to mission, purpose, beliefs and motive. When I’m trying to help a leadership team articulate their purpose, the most powerful question I can ask them is “why does this company exist, above and beyond making money?” Virtually every time, it leads them to heartfelt statements of contribution, mission and meaning.

In almost all other circumstances, however, asking ‘why?’ is very unhelpful; especially when directed at subordinates (or kids). Just think about your own experience. What do you hear when your boss asks “why did you choose that approach?” Do you hear genuine curiosity, or do you hear “what the hell were you thinking!?” Almost certainly, you hear the latter.

‘Why?’ encourages defensiveness

When you begin a question with ‘why?’, you convey a sense of judgment, even if that’s not your intention. The recipient will assume that you have a problem with their approach, and feel the need to defend it. This defence could be passive; in the form of avoidance, or aggressive; in the form of opposition. Both reactions are driven by a need for security, which is a default response whenever we feel judged.

‘Why?’ looks backward

‘Why?’ questions are almost exclusively retrospective and backward looking. So, the more time you spend in a conversation dominated by ‘why?’ questions, the less time you will spend constructing a path forward. ‘Why?’ questions may feel important, and create the impression that you are learning, but they generally keep you stuck, passive and helpless.

‘Why?’ does not get to root cause

We often use ‘why?’ questions in the mistaken belief that we can get to the root cause of an issue, error or problem. If you were dealing with a robot, then this might be true, but human beings don’t work that way. No matter how polite or well intentioned, your ‘why?’ questions will feel like an interrogation not a conversation. As such, the recipient will not be focused on solving the problem at hand; they will be focused on making sure they have a chair when the music stops. While learning from mistakes is essential, there are far more effective questions you can use.

‘What?’ and ‘how?’ questions are much better for leaders

Unless you are exploring purpose, you should begin your questions with ‘how?’ and ‘what?’, rather than ‘why?’. Here are some examples;

  • “Why do you say that?” becomes “how did you come to that conclusion?”
  • “Why did you do it that way?” becomes “what were you trying to accomplish?”
  • “Why is this important?” becomes “what is important about this?”
  • “Why has there been no progress?” becomes “how could we move forward?”
  • “Why did this happen?” becomes “what is the best outcome from here?”

In contrast to the ‘why?’ questions above, the ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions convey a genuine attempt to understand the situation, are devoid of judgment, and are more forward leaning. As such, they are much more likely to deliver you the outcomes you seek. They are also more likely to encourage constructive cultural norms, which are the hallmark of highly effective teams.
A simple mantra to embed this idea in your practice is; ‘why?’ for purpose, but ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ for process.

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about PETER

For two decades, Dr. Peter Fuda has been a Sherpa to leaders, teams and organizations across the globe. He’s coached more than 200 CEOs to measurably higher levels of performance. His consulting company has delivered some 50 cases of business transformation and more than 1,000 cases of leadership transformation, at a success rate of greater than 90%.

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