The Power of a Meaningful Why
One of the biggest reasons, employees get frustrated and disengage is that they don’t understand the “why” behind what they are being asked to do. Why to explain why again.
Last week, we were wrapping up our final session of a six-month strategic management intensive with a group of engineering managers by helping them to synthesize what they’d learned.
In addition to a number of more mainstream techniques, we asked them to craft strategic stories to pass along their key messages to the next generation of managers coming behind them.
They picked a leadership priority or approach they wanted to reinforce, and then found a real story from their personal or work life to make the message more impactful and sticky.
As you can imagine, this is not the sort of exercise that is necessarily embraced with a gung-ho attitude by engineering types. Even with a formula, this process was a stretch (that’s why we saved it to the last session so we couldn’t get fired 😉
They nailed it.
“When I was 17, I worked at Ace Hardware. It was my job to keep track of the inventory in the back and sometimes I ran the register. My boss had made it perfectly clear about what you would call a “MIT (most important thing).” If a customer asked for something they couldn’t find, our only response should be “I’ll be happy to go in the back and check for you.”
But on this particular day, I KNEW the tool the customer had asked for was not in the back because I had just noticed the issue when I was working in the back. When the customer asked me to go in the back and double-check, I informed him that I was absolutely sure we were out and there was no reason to check.
My boss overheard me and when the customer left, he let me have it, and told me in no uncertain terms that if I ever told a customer we were out of something without going into the back to check, I would be fired.
I thought this was ridiculous, but I complied AND thought my boss was a jerk. I didn’t understand why we would have such a stupid policy—what a waste of time.
Fast forward 3 months
Fast forward a decade to a few months ago. I was neck-deep in renovating my house and I ran out of something I really needed to get the job done. My fiancé and I were really tired of all the mess and I just needed to get this done. I ran over to Ace and asked the kid at the counter for some help finding what I needed. “Oh no man, we’re out,” the kid shrugged and moved on.
And then, I found myself looking at this kid in disbelief and saying “Come on, can’t you at least go look in the back?”
And then it hit me.
The Why Revealed
That’s WHY my boss had that “stupid” policy. To make frustrated customers like me feel just a little bit better—that someone cares enough to go one more step. If only if he had explained why.
It’s tricky. We always make sense to us, and the “why” behind our intentions always seems so obvious–to us. If your “why” really matters, why leave the understanding to chance?
Reinforce your “why” every chance you get.
4 Tips for Explaining Why
- Check Your Gut. Be sure you know why you’re asking them to do what you’re asking them to do.
- Reinforce. Share stories, dig for data, illuminate examples.
- Check For Understanding. Ask strategic questions to help your team see what you see, or just ask them what they heard.
- Repeat anything that’s important is worth communicating five times, five different ways.
Your turn. What are your favorite ways to explain why?