Why is a powerful word and deserves some special attention.  When it comes to engaging employees, or getting buy-in to a new idea, the book, “Start with Why” from Simon Sinek (Penguin, 2009) has really brought this word to the front and center in organizational management.

In this model for achieving inspiration, Sinek wrote that rather than a person or organization communicating what they do, or how they do it differently or better, it is more effective start with why we do it. It is the why that inspires us and our customers. The concept of ‘start with why’ also applies to increasing employee motivation. Rather than telling a team member what to do or how to do it, leaders should start with why we are doing it. Tapping into that purpose, most people can figure out what needs to be done and how to get it done. This autonomy in-turn gives employees a sense of control and freedom which are drivers of motivation and engagement.

Whenever I explain the value of why, I get a sense of resistance. In part, it is because explaining why is not really that easy; having to explain why, might inform our own thoughts about what and how something should be done, and we are giving up control when we don’t tell others exactly what to do and how to do it.

There’s something else too. In a different context, why has negative connotations. That context is in problem-solving.  “Why did you do that?” “Why didn’t the team meet their sales goals?” This use of why has the opposite effect. Why as a question leads to narrow, reductionist thinking. Why as a question causes us to become defensive; is negative and demotivating.

Problem-solving is most useful when focused at processes or procedures, not people. There are times when helping someone identify their problem is useful, but not as often as we probably do it. Discussions about problems rarely move us forward—because in fact they are backward looking. Looking backward (at the problem) is a lot easier than looking forward (at a solution). Focusing on problems can be interesting, but focusing on solutions is more useful.  

Given the motivational aspect of why when used as a noun (the reason or purpose), why also has the downside potential of being demotivating when used as an adverb (the reason or cause)–especially for competent employees with whom you want to maintain trust and respect. Read the list of questions on the left and let their emotional load sink in. Then read the list on the right. Does it feel different? In what way? If someone was helping you, which set of questions would you prefer?

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These two cases of using why—one as a statement and one as a question—have opposite impacts on how they make us feel. For this reason, I think the positive use of why has met some resistance. I hope a closer look at the different usages will increase your comfort at starting with why, and I hope that it will encourage you to not use why when helping employees work through and beyond problems.