The Power of Why
Updated: Jan 24
If you've ever spent any time around toddlers and young children, then you know that their favorite question is, "Why?" It's the constant word on the tip of their tongue, and the question at the forefront of their mind as they interact with the world around them. And while, as adults, we might lose our patience with the constant echoing of "Why? .... but why?... why not?", these questions are necessary for children to learn about the world and how things work.
We all recognize this, and we're generally inclined to accept their questions and guide them in an understanding of the new things they are experiencing - unless it's the 1000th question in a series of questions, and then we resort to that famous answer, "Because." That frustrated response generally only leads to more frustration, though, as their next question inevitably is, "Because why?"
As we grow up, parents, mentors, teachers, and professors open our eyes to the world around us, giving us the answers to the whys of our world: why the sun rises and sets, why flowers grow, why birds sing, why people act like they do, why numbers just work, etc. Oftentimes, as we go through school, we get fed the answers to more questions than we could even ask! And, we don't always appreciate the information that we're given at the time.
But then, something happens as we enter the workforce...
We go into new work settings, and as we look at the workflows and processes going on around us, we become that young child again, and our immediate response is to ask, "Why?" Except, too often, asking that question to our directors, bosses, or administrators is seen as challenging, aggressive, or even insubordinate. And what is the answer that we're given, time and time again? "Because." Or, in its fullest form, "Because that's the way we've always done it."
But is "the way we've always done it" really the best way? Do we fully appreciate the value that a fresh perspective and a new set of eyes brings to our department and to our established processes? Obviously, there are times when the why questions are asked just for the sake of being challenging and difficult. But removing those exceptions from the conversation, let me ask my own 'why' questions:
WHY does the question "Why?" make us feel threatened and challenged?
WHY are we afraid of looking at how we do things and finding a better way?
WHY are we afraid of change?
I would argue that, as both leaders and experienced employees, we feel threatened by the why questions because we've forgotten what it's like to not know things. We've forgotten what it's like to be new, and we don't remember when we were the ones asking the same questions. Let me encourage you to be open to the why questions. Helping new employees answer those questions in an open and accepting manner broadens their understanding of our department, helps them
learn quickly, enables them to interact with others members of the team in a confident manner, and allows you to be a trusted resource for them.
I would also argue that the why questions make us feel threatened because we don't always have a good answer to them. "Because we've always done it this way" is a brush-off response, but it's not an adequate answer. And if we take a deeper dive into answering the question, and look into a process that is potentially broken or could simply be improved, we might feel threatened or intimidated that someone else saw an opportunity for improvement before we did. We also have to recognize that answering the why questions might mean we have to make a change. Change is hard. Change takes time. And most of us are resistant to change... unless there's a really good reason why.
So as we kick off a new year, I would encourage you to be open to the why questions, and be willing to answer them. Be a resource to the new team members, and give them a safe place to learn about the department they find themselves in. Look at the processes within your department and see where change is needed. Find out WHY a current process is broken, or identify established habits that need reform - and don't be afraid to do the hard work of making a change! And when change leads to more why questions, be open to having the conversation and teaching others the 'why' behind the change. Because when we know the 'why' behind the process, we're much more willing to get on board with the change.
Until next time,