“Why, mommy, why?” Those annoying little pests. Why are they constantly asking why? For good reason actually — and it’s not unique to kids. When it comes to the world of work, understanding the “wonder of why” has huge implications. That’s especially true for employee engagement and the impact it can have on organizational performance and business results.
So why is why such a big deal? It starts with understanding the two extraordinary traits that differentiate human beings from all other living creatures on the planet — imagination and free will. We are unique in our capacity to conceive of things that do not exist in the natural world — and we are free to choose and do whatever we want with it.
Birds and bees, cats and dogs and all other animals take the world pretty much as it comes, and they do only what they are programmed to do by nature — unless they are trained by humans to do something unnature-like. The question “why” never comes up for animals. It’s already answered for them by their programs, so it’s irrelevant. For human beings, though, imagination and free will allow us — actually compel us — to wonder and to ask why. And it shows up in a number of vitally important ways:
The common driver
The most common driver for wondering why is when we get commands and requests that don’t make sense or we don’t like. Fact is, no one of any age likes to be told what to do without knowing why. “Because I told you so” may work as a last resort for a 2-year-old, but try that kind of command and control with employees, and see how far it gets you. Sure, you may get compliance, but you’ll never get the “extra mile” effort that exemplifies genuine employee engagement. In fact, you’re likely to get just the opposite — people intentionally dragging their feet, especially when you’re not looking.
Asking why serves a similar purpose in challenging ourselves to examine the rationale for our own decisions and actions. There’s substantial power in asking “Why do I really want to do this?” The clearer and stronger your reasons, the more likely you are to believe in what you’re doing and to stick with it.
Another essential driver for asking why is to understand our individual purpose — both at work and life in general. Simon Sinek has gained considerable notoriety from his lectures and training programs that offer people a popular method to “Learn Your Why” — the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do what you do.
Taking that kind of introspection a step further, people have asked for millennia what may be the most elemental question of all. Why are we here? Why life? Even if you’re not a philosopher, those are important, uniquely human questions almost everyone has thought about at some point in trying to make sense of their existence.
In the realm of performance improvement, the “5 Whys” is a proven technique used to investigate the causes of a specific problem. The main goal is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?” several times in succession. Each answer leads to the next why. The number 5 comes from studies showing the number of repetitions usually needed to solve the problem. The tool was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, and it was used at the Toyota Motor Corporation routinely during its spectacular rise to success.
Want to do effective strategic planning? The core, critical question for the planning team should always be why you should go in whatever direction you decide to pursue. What’s more, sharing the why with employees in a way they understand will help with buy-in and execution, which is where most strategic plans ultimately fail.
If that’s not enough, here’s one more critical motive for valuing the “wonder of why” — your customers. If you think kids and employees persist in wanting to know the reasoning behind things, try sidestepping a customer who wants to know why they’re having a problem with your company or why you can’t fix it and give them what they want.
The more you create a culture that honors and fosters the wonder of why, the better your employees will be able to handle those crucial moments of truth when they can make or break the future of the relationships with your customers — and the future success of your organization.
In the end, the reason people want to know why is simple — they’re wonder-full.
Les Landes is president of Landes and Associates. For information, visit www.landesassociates.com.