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“Why?” – The Most Important Question You Should Answer


February 12, 2019

I’ve seen it many times. The blank stare as I’m training a new employee. It’s a look they get when you explain, “this is the way we do this, and that is the way we do that.” Like a mystic on late-night T.V., I can tell you the next word that will come out of their mouths: “Why?

While it may seem like a distracting question at best and disrespectful at worst, it is the single most important question they could ask, and it demands an answer.

Any parent is keenly aware of how ubiquitous this question is. Kids are notorious for launching the “Why?” assault. Most of us have attempted a rational response to our kids, but–at least in my case–it quickly becomes apparent they just aren’t mature enough to follow the logic. So we resort to “because I said so” or “just trust me.” That works in a parent-child relationship for a few short years, but it really has no room in the business world.

If someone on your team is asking why, they are actually showing that at some level they are engaged in the mental gymnastics required to assimilate that information, not just operating under rote muscle memory like a robot. They’re looking for motivation.

Psychologists recognize a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when someone performs a task for some outside reward (like a paycheck). Intrinsic motivation is when someone engages in a certain behavior for its own sake, because they know it is good. In a sense, the task itself is the reward.

When an employee simply does what you say without understanding, they are almost exclusively acting out of extrinsic, reward-based motivation. But if someone asks why, they are asking, “Does this task have intrinsic value?”

Here is a real-world example.

On our in-house order entry form, we have two lines for addresses. We creatively call these lines Address1 and Address2. This week we realized that sometimes we enter an order like this:

The Best Greenhouse Ever
123 Main St
ATTN: John
Anytown, US 12345

And sometimes we enter it like this:

The Best Greenhouse Ever
ATTN: John
123 Main St
Anytown, US 12345

This discrepancy has never been an issue before, but a new app that we’ve started using now pushes addresses to google maps for our drivers, and this anomaly is creating problems.

I could just fire off an email and state, “From now on, please put the street address in Address1 and any additional information in Address2.” I’m fairly certain that everyone would do it because they respect my position.

The question for us as leaders, though, is this: how do I get the most buy-in from team members? The answer: to anticipate the why, and answer it on the front side. How much better response do you think we’d get from an email (or better yet, some face-to-face training) that has this tone?:

As you all know, we released a new app for our drivers to help them navigate easier. It looks like our Address1 and Address2 lines are causing the app some issues when the information isn’t consistent. Take a look at these addresses and I think it will help you visualize the problem

Example 1
The Best Greenhouse Ever
123 Main St
ATTN: John
Anytown, US 12345

Example 2
The Best Greenhouse Ever
ATTN: John
123 Main St
Anytown, US 12345 

When the additional information appears on Address1, the drivers have to type the address manually into google maps. Let’s all try to do two things going forward so that we can streamline the workflow for drivers:

  1. When we add a new address that requires extra info, let’s put that on Address2.
  2. As we are doing order edits and clearing orders for shipment (especially deliveries on our trucks), let’s keep our eye out for old addresses that are badly formatted and get those entered correctly.

Did you catch the why? “So that we can streamline the workflow for drivers.” The intrinsic motivation here is that you will be helping someone downstream of the order fulfillment process. Nothing more, nothing less.

Why does all this matter?

Next time a team member asks why, understand that they are not attacking your system or your intellect. They are looking for motivation.

When you are planning your next training session, start with the reason behind the training. As the saying goes, “start with why.”

Start to see these why questions as opportunities to give team members the intrinsic motivation they need to be a successful team member, for the good of the business.