Stop asking “why”
I think you ask “why” too much and “what” too little. Asking “why” is a backward-facing activity that examines the past searching for excuses and someone to blame. Asking “why” may be useful on the psychologist couch or in science class but it’s not as useful for leaders.
“Why” feels good.
There’s finality to answering “why?” You may feel a sense of accomplishment because you figured something out. But what did you accomplish?
Don’t get me wrong. I like to blame others for my problems as much as the next person. It’s easy and relieves me of responsibility.
Leadership and “why.”
Leadership is always about forward-facing movement not backward-facing excuses. It’s about change. “Why” won’t take you there.
“What” not “why” shows the way.
- What can you do today that moves you toward tomorrow’s goal?
- What can you do that steps you forward into sustaining relationships?
- What behaviors move you toward career advancement?
The ability to explain why something happened is admirable but frequently useless. On the other hand, defining forward-facing behaviors that create a preferred future is wise. Wisdom is practical and actionable.
I love “why.” “I wonder why they manipulate others,” represent an excursion into speculative, excuse-making bliss. Frankly, I’m seeing “why” as a colossal waste of time.
I wonder why I’m so interested in why?
Banish “why” from your vocabulary for 24 hours. Only ask “what.” I think you’ll experience a taste of forward momentum. For example, don’t ask yourself why you are exhausted. Ask, “What can I do to restore my enthusiasm and energy.” You don’t need a reason why. You need a change in behavior.
Has asking “why” waylaid you?
Ask why, think Why not ? is what I was doing. “Why” did it happen helps to look back. But now onwards its going to be “What”. Thank you
Thanks for your comment. I love the “why not” question. At least it opens the door to opportunity. Adding “what” “why not” gets our feet into action.
Much of this depends on the context, doesn’t it?
What about ‘How’?
A lot of (US-based) motivational speakers will tell you WHAT you shoud do and WHY … but not HOW. You’ll find the same process in the (long copy) sales letters in internet marketing. Plenty of WHY and WHAT. Very little HOW.
In the context of your blog, WHAT is better than WHY, because it re-frames, more positively, the way we should look at the present situation. So I agree with you.
Nice addition to the conversation. I have to agree that How is important. I think how needs to be held off because great ideas are often destroyed because we bombard them with “how” questions too soon.
Thanks for adding the importance of context to this post.
enjoy your blogs but have to disagree.
‘why’ informs and allows new decisions to be taken. it helps avoid repeating past mistakes and let’s the experts inform their boss (which they enjoy). all of which moves you fwd but armed with a fuller picture.
feel that this blog and using ‘what’ might only give you half …
Thanks for disagreeing! I think a good “what” may include a “why” component.
why do you say that, Micky? (just kidding)
you raise a good point. Finding out why something happened can give us clues for greater insight and understanding. In my opinion, “why” is not wrong, it’s just incomplete.
“Why” has a short shelf life. Many leaders, I’m afraid, get stuck on “why” and don’t parlay the lesson into a “what”, such as “what do we about it?” or “what is our next step?”
Good morning Dan. I have a different take on “why” from the one proposed. I agree with you that asking why to explain past events is an exercise in futility and “what” does harbor forward thinking energy, however answering the “why” of a future endeavor will lead to sustainability because the why links to purpose and without purpose not sure it would matter much what I do or for that matter how and when I do it. To paraphrase Nietzsche : “Knowing why will make any how bearable.” Have great weekend. AD
Great point. The “why” of purpose is essential to long-term success and passion.
Thanks for all you do,
Al is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. You can read his bio at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/al-diaz
Like Al, I’m inclined to think that ‘why’ is a a potential source of positivity rather than a sense of futility. When I’m trying to find out things historically ‘why’ is a great question. I also liked Al’s take on the ‘why’ of a future endeavour to enable you to keep focus and ensure good purpose.
Having said that I loved the thought of asking myself ‘what can I do to restore my energy and enthusiasm’ rather than ‘why am I exhausted’. As a resurgence of energy kicks in that’s a great pick-me-up and I like that!
Have a great weekend
Now you guys are ganging up on me! Great points that add to the discussion. I appreciate it.
Thanks for the challenging post! Depending on one’s disposition, I think it’s very easy to get sucked into navel-gazing and philosophical debates while putting execution and practical progress on the back burner.
but I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because I may be prone to think more than act, doesn’t mean I should unilaterally banish “why.” Why is critical to root-cause analysis and gaining the insight needed to move forward wisely.
What I take away from this is to be wary of too much Why. What I’ll do in the future is to discipline myself to get to the what questions quicker.
Thanks for making us think, Dan, while challenging us to get moving!
Perhaps a better title for this post is: “Too much why and you die” 🙂
I’m always thankful when you share your insights.
I agree with Dan that “Why” questions associated with blame or accountability are seldom useful. However, in my business the “why” of root cause anlysis is essential to problem-solving. In fact, we have a simple technique called “Five Whys” to help with root cause analysis. However, this may fall into the area Dan set aside as scientific inquiry and therefore may not invalidate the point. In many instances, unless we understand why things went the way they did, we are likely to get the same outcome at some point in the future.
All that said, what is definitely the more pro-active and productice question.
I enjoy reading your thought process. Very helpful.
I’ll suggest that perhaps we can begin with What happened or What did we do to get the results we achieved and then move into a future facing “what.”
Thanks for adding value,
Whys are so powerful, and so destructive.
Wonder if there are no dumb questions? Well, there are, and they usually begin with why.
One cannot create dialogue with the word why, because when it is used, the question always becomes a challenge. Why did this happen? Why did you do this? Even better: Why didn’t you do this?
The use of why absolves the asker of responsibility and implies blame onto the person being asked.
Why does not promote action.
My response to the use of why is usually the same: “Because I’m incompetent. Now what can we do to move forward?”
In technology or Healthcare, if we did not ask WHY, we will keep repeating errors – now that is work product. In behaviours – do we still need to think WHY so we can adjust our style?
When I’m coaching people, “Why” questions almost always get them right into their heads, right into the land of analysis, right into defensiveness. “What” questions, especially when combined with sense verbs (“What would success look like?” “What do you see ahead of you on this path?” “What does your fear sound like?” What’s the texture in this place of uneasiness?”) get the client into the land of metaphor where so much creative thinking and problem-solving are possible.
I agree that asking ‘Why?’ to blame is unproductive. However, I also agree with the earlier comments that ‘why’ can be productive, especially if it is asked to examine what went wrong in the past in order to make changes in the future. For example, asking a funder, ‘Why didn’t we get the grant?’ can lead to a better grant proposal in the future. Asking an employer, ‘Why didn’t you hire the client?’ can lead to better job readiness lessons. There is definately misuse of ‘why’ and there is also a nessessary time to use it.
Excellent point about the essential purpose of asking why.
And if the questions could be framed thus:
“What could we have done to get the client?”
“How else could we have got the grant?”
The goal remains the same. Stating with why leads to pondering. Using what or how promotes action.
* * *
Why am I blogging instead of working? 🙂
WHAT, no WHY. Great advice, Dan.
Dr. Leonard Sweet coined the phrase, “Parabolic Harmonious Oscillation” (the science behind, say, swinging on a swing.) It’s impossible to swing from a dead stop unless you are leaning back and kicking forward at the same time.
Same is true with leadership. A world-class leader operates with two perspectives simultaneously: a view of the past (leaning back) and what was learned AND AT THE SAME TIME a view of the present (kicking forward) and where they are headed.
Reminds me of a John Deere commercial I saw once that ended with this phrase: “Everything we learn goes into everything we do.” A perpetual learning cycle. THAT’S good leadership. IMHO.
I agree to your suggestions of using wgat and avoiding why. Yes I think asking why waylay sometimes. While it is backward pulling, it also maximises options. And asking why also makes you curious to know more and more. For example in case study pedagogy, teacher always why. The intention is simple; to know more and more till students stops answering. I think, asking why depends upon intention and curiosity. When a person is doing something abnormally, you might ask, why do you do like this. So, the answer could open up so many hidden truth. While asking what could be just knowing above surface. But to drill down to ground, you should ask why.
Today, managers quesions new ideas, because they believe in same old belief, trends etc. They ask why to stop the idea to execute. And in this process, they do not use new ideas, instead they reject it.
So, I think, situation and intention of the person determines the true meaning of what and why.
Some years ago a therapist friend of mine said that “why” questions were primarily punishing questions, particularly when asked by parents. While there are times I have found “why” questions useful, most of the time I DO find them to be more about punishing/blame and less about productive fact finding that will move you forward. Tone is everything. What was my true motivation for asking? Did I really want to find a solution for the future, or did I want someone to blame for the present. Punishing is not the same as accountability.
I agree with Dan and Phillip that “what” and “how” can be very useful in focusing people forward, and understanding how they will approach the solution. How works best for me when I don’t have experience working with someone and I want to understand the “how” and the “what” in their thinking. With growth and confidence I tend to become less interested in how they will do something and more about what they will do by when.
I like this post because I coach some strong-willed people that don’t fully understand how ineffective and energy-sapping their “why” questions are.
As an Interim Executive (or a NEW Executive), ‘why’ can be very powerful. “Why are we doing these things?” “Why do we have to have this function?” When framed as a genuine curiosity, this can be a powerful way to get people who are just getting to know you to open up, become your teacher. Because they are teaching you, they become more comfortable with you, and will be more receptive to the follow-up questions that come later — “What if we did it this way instead?” “What if we folded that function into this one?” “How can we change what we do in order to better provide this service?”
Currently in New Orleans visiting my daughter, listening to jazz at the N.O. Jazz and Heritage Festival and visiting my 93 year old Mother. Needed a break.
In the safety world we do not ask “Why” questions enough. In fact, we never do. When an incident occurs, management becomes entwined in asking what and how questions about an accident and more importantly “Who” questions so they can blame someone.
Most of the time we can tell someone else “What” we do and “How” we do what we do, but rarely can we truly communicate “Why” we do what we do.
I wrote a column on this topic that appeared in Industrial Safety & Hygiene News last month, which I’ll send to you.
Be Safe and have a Great Weekend,
I think sometimes “why” is useful, such as the 5 why’s that enable us to get to root causes.
However, when it comes to problem solving, “why” needs to take a back seat to “what,” as you suggested. I am currently involved in helping a group of students manage bullying issues at high school. Although as parents, we almost can’t help wondering “why” some kids make such destructive choices, when we sit down with our kids to iron out a solution, “what” is a much more productive choice. With that in mind, I revised the 3 “what’s” as I envision them possibly working in this situation (the what’s bring a lot more personal accountability to the table as well.)
1.What can you do today as a student at your school to move you toward tomorrow’s goal of creating a campus characterized by mutual respect?
2.What can you do that steps you forward into relationships that build up instead of tearing down?
3.What behaviors move you toward standing tall and away from being a “victim”?
WOW! what good advice. I’m going to incorporate this in my supervisory training workshops! I’ve always been a proponent of drilling down and asking “why”…. Now I’m switching to “What can I (we) do differently?” Thanks Dan.
It is clear by these posts that why has a lot of meanings and uses. I would like to examine “why” for a moment and build on Susan’s idea of why being a teacher. Here is a way I see that “why” can be useful.
When “why” is asked by a person laying blame, he or she is often a person with an unmet need. In this case, a strong responder can see it for what it is and perhaps allay a frustration. In this case, a person has exposed a misunderstanding or a pain. Rather than jumping to a defense and putting in motion an unproductive scenario, the responder has a wonderful chance to turn a frustration into productive energy and initiative.
I heard a term on NPR yesterday. It was “induced seismicity.” This is when the eruption of a volcano was induced, by something, for example by building something on top of a fault.
It has been said that the person asking why might be blaming (e.g. “why did you do that?”) What is that but making someone at fault? Now build on that fault by not addressing it properly and there will be an induced seismic eruption!
Here is the way I would like to see this. Let’s say that why is a good question. “Why?” can be asked and answered either properly or improperly. The idea is that one of the two in the interaction must be responsible. One of the two must assure that either the question or the answer is properly delivered. See below.
A) Either the asker needs to authentically want to know why. One who really wants to know is not emotional. He or she can transform any backlash by the one who feels disrespected (because he’s not!), and the conversation can be productive.
B) The answerer, even if why is accusatory, needs to have the best interest of the whole situation in mind. He or she must not take it personally. Instead, he or she must seek to understand the root of the question. What need is not being met by the person (seemingly) trying to lay blame?
I think the outcome would be vastly different when at least one person remains responsible (conscious) than it would be when one is laying blame and the other is defending him or herself.
The result might even be a step above just doing “what” and letting the misunderstanding fester. I think the person who mentioned to consider “how” alluded to this idea. Some hows can include making a connection, interacting, having patience, and assuring a two-way understanding.
Imagine the power if the person would authentically ask why, and the responder would turn on his or her perception and patience button! What if both were to be responsible?
This post is inspiring to me. Thank you everyone.
Hmm – I do like how you challenge my paradigms.
And – I believe context matters on this one. When leaders are driving change – fast, needed, critical change – I think “why” matters. Asking the “why” question – along with many others- can uncover bias and unforeseen obstacles that trip up a change process.
I dunno – nice to have these types of discussions. Thanks!
Asking “why” has its place, but any well-developed leader knows they cannot have an answer to every question. Lacking this sense shows a lack of humility in a leader.
why do you ask? 😉
as to when “why” is important in leadership, it depends on the context. I agree we could spend too much time putting up questions for context as a barrier to addressing real issues.
but asking “why” is essential when finding the right problem to solve. most of the time, we are addressing symptoms of a problem, not root cause issues. so we need to abstract a problem to the right one.
consider this ‘problem’: “I want to get promoted.” asking “why is that important to you?” unearths a number of alternative thoughts:
* I want to make more money.
* I want to be important.
* I want more authority.
* I want to make a difference.
* I want to advance my career.
once we pull back the covers and determine what the *real* issue is, we can drill down into it and find some answers or take some action:
* what are some ways you can make more money?
* what are some things you can you do to make a difference?
* what are you passionate about? how could you channel that for your organization’s benefit?
* what are some things that are important to you that you have vision for leading?
* what things would you do differently if you were in charge?
* what is stopping you from having the impact you think you can?
now the “what” stage is non-negotiable, because that drives us forward.
we need the “why” to give us proper focus and context. but we need action, too.
A mind-blowing post and the logical presentation of your views to change the mind-set of people like me to think more of ‘what’ then ‘why’.
I liked your concluding line too. ” You don’t need a reason why. You need a change in behavior.
Dear Dr. Asher,
Thanks for your encouragement.
Dr. Asher is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Read his bio at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/dr-asher
Many of the dozens of comments above have articulated the usefulness of asking ‘why’ (depending on context) rather than what. I typically agree with your posts but disagree with your premise that ‘why’ is somehow restricted to the psychologists couch. Respectfully, that’s a ridiculous and even dangerous premise to take.
A former boss (a CEO) once told me, “even if you crashed the car, tell me about it.” I took his advice and even if I messed up it led to a learning experience that I could use to avoid repeating the same mistake over and over. If the question stopped at WHAT, then there would be no learning and I may have gotten fired. A good leader can turn even a poor/costly decision into a learning experience so it does not happen again. This is the fundamental reason ‘why’ should ALWAYS be asked by a leader. It’s the leader’s responsibility to go beyond ‘what’, get context and apply it to future situations. Stopping at ‘what’ stops the learning.
If your son crashed your car just after getting his license, you can ask “what happened” to which he’ll tell you. Asking “why” would eventually lead to finding out he was speeding, didn’t use his mirrors, or even that it was someone else’s fault entirely. If you stopped at WHAT, you may jump to conclusions and would lose the opportunity to make it a learning experience.
For a data driven industry like BI/analytics, leaders need to go beyond data that asks ‘what’ and dive deeper.
Have you read Guy Kawasaki’s book the Art of the Start?
Great book on just starting and not waiting until you get everything in line.
I have not read it but I believe in the concept!
I’ve given this considerable thought over the years (the merits and demerits of “why” and indeed banished it from my *persona*l vocabulary many years ago. As you rightly state, it does tend to put people on the defensive – asking for their rationale even when they might have none. Sometimes people do think through their decisions before acting but many times they don’t.
One highly-regarded university communications professor of mine put it bluntly: “‘Why’ is a bucket of shit.” (Thought-provoking and easy to remember.)
But in recent years I’ve come to believe that when used in the context of a healthy *professional* relationship and for a constructive purpose, “why” can be useful. One such context is causal analysis. When done properly, causal analysis is decidely NOT a hunt for the guilty, but rather a quest for process improvement.
All of this is to say 1) The “Five Whys” method is perfectly fine and even desireable; but “Why didn’t you tell your father you love him” is hurtful, off-point, and unnecessary.
I do like this. In John G. Miller’s book, QBQ, he focuses on the same thing. Ask “what” or “how” if you want forward thinking.
Very interesting and thought-provoking, challenging me to answer the question: “Why not ask why?”
As a problem-solving tool (as in the Five Whys), it can be useful to get at root cause/underlying issues. Yet, as I consider using it even in this context, how is it NOT possible to put someone on their heels? (The best-case situation I can imagine is using it in a healthy, functional team with clear ground rules about using the tool as an investigatory process, rather than assigning blame.)
Is it important to understand the reasons something happened that shouldn’t have, or didn’t happen that should have? If for no other reason (and as pointed out in several of the replies), yes, to avoid the same issue repeating. But, even then, we have to ask ourselves, “How likely is it the same issue will re-occur?” It would need the same circumstances and conditions.
Learning from our past is crucial; it informs our choices. (I love the John Deere reference!) The question, for me, becomes, “What’s the best way to learn from our past?”
As I’m thinking more about the many reasons good folks are giving for why “Why” is important, I’m able to, in almost every case, reframe the “Why” question into a “What” or “How” one.
“Why did this happen?” (asked non-blamefully, non-judgmentally, with a true desire to know)
How about, “What can we learn from this?”
Both get at the essential need to learn from the past, and that’s the goal. But one–potentially–puts the responder in a position where they’d might feel they need to defend, justify, or blame, while, I believe, the other opens dialogue in the context of reflection.
After reading the post, I all ready to disagree. Well, not disagree so much as share a different take for different circumstances. After reading the subsequent comments, I realize that I do not need to do that- others have already raised the ideas of the “why” that pushes to purpose, the “how” that clarifies more exact next steps, the “what” that collects events in order to find patterns of practice. In these examples, it’s almost like seeing anniceberg model- the “what” questions get at specific events in order to uncover patterns, while the follow-up “why” questions push toward the mental models & beliefs that have led to those actions.
Instead of “attacking,” I’ll bring a few other words into the conversation: “who,” “when,” and “where.” Together, these three words shape context, which gets at the heart of my earlier point of disagreement. These factors that define context should impact whether “what,” “why,” or “how” is the focus of questioning.
Great point/analogy Tony about ‘why’ uncovering the iceberg, fits very well! Thanks!
Why did you write this column? What the heck were you thinking? Where do you get off writing it? Who do you think you are? How the heck did you get this post? When are you going to get a clue? Why is everyone picking on Dan?
Kidding of course with the above queries, perhaps makes the case for presentation, presentation, presentation.
Without going into too much analysis, perhaps leaders should ask themselves why are they asking, what is their motivation and is it aligned with vision and respect, then ask.
Why has a place, as other as have noted, new leaders (if they prep the group to know that why will often be asked to learn about the culture) or in a retrospective moment (lessons learned, root cause analysis) or introspective moment (why am I still banging my head against this metaphoric wall when it hurts so much, wonder if I should do something else, nah, think I’ll just bang it some more…ouch still hurts) or to dislodge a stuck system (because we have always done it this way, even though it really doesn’t work well).
Because why can also cause immediate walls/defensiveness, leaders need to use it judiciously which may be the case for all of the rest of the question words too. In careful collaboration with the others, why has a place for leaders.
Really enjoyed reading all the threads in today’s post, thanks LF community for jumping in!
Well Doc, since you started with the retrospective moment and then went on to bang your head with the introspective moment let me finish the trilogy by saying that unless you know “why” the prospective moment may never arrive. 🙂 Cheers Al
I like: “Tell me more.”
Two thumbs up Peggy! Without any of the WWWWWH, you still ask and are interested at the same time.
“Why” establishes purpose. “Why are we in business?” It also establishes accountability. “Why do I need this?” or “Why are we doing this”.
I also disagree for the reasons stated in the many other comments sharing the same opinion. Root cause analysis, etc. A person or business that fails to learn from their mistakes or failures is apt to repeat them to their own peril.
I would never banish “Why” from my vocabulary. To suggest that the reason for asking “Why” is for the purpose of assigning blame is either indicative of arcane management practices or indicative of a management team that fears mutual accountability.
Leadership is an issue where trust, respect, integrity, and accountability are absent. Clearly the leadership perspective here does not embrace the culture of most lean organizations.
Thanks so much for adding your insights and perspective to the conversation.
Best to you,
The DiSC profile reveals that there are essentially four segments of people for people management purposes (highlighted by the Manager Tools podcast). One of the identifying factors is the type of question asked by each segment. I happen to be a High C “Perfectionist” who predominately asks Why questions. If you are not familiar with DiSC, I’d be curious to hear how it impacts your thinking about questions.
My inclination is to ask “Why” questions. 🙂
thanks for asking,
hola me como estes. Mi frase favorita es por que
I know a lot of couples therapist say to Stay away from “why” because of the same reason stated in your blog. It was very nice to see this coming from someone else.