I was the member of a Mastermind Group about ten years ago. It was a terrific experience working with Human Resource professionals from different industries around the Raleigh/Durham area. I always remember one of the ground rules for Mastermind, which is a group of like-minded professionals who discuss confidentially current issues in their job or business and meet on a regular basis. The ground rule was to not ask Why. I remember thinking that that seemed odd. After all, haven’t I been asking why since I was about 3 years old? Seems like an obvious, simple question to get to the bottom of an issue or problem. But think about it for a moment when I ask you the following questions:
Why are you late?
Why are you early?
Why are you on time?
Why are we going?
Why is it hot?
Why haven’t you?
Why won’t you?
Why don’t you?
Why is that there?
Why don’t you just…?
How does that feel? I know it makes me feel defensive and diminished. Like I belong on a stool facing the corner in my kindergarten class. Is this really how I want to treat people? It can be interrogating, demanding, confrontational and judgmental all at the same time. It focuses on the problem instead of insight and solutions. What about some alternatives?
How to quit asking why:
Describe the situation. Let’s say your employee is late with an important project. Instead of asking “Why is this late?”, you could ask:
Tell me about the timeline for this project.
How did this get off track?
What were some obstacles you had to deal with?
What were the circumstances that led to this situation?
You are more likely to get better insight into what is causing delays for the employee that you may not realize; and be more proactive towards solutions going forward. This tests your assumptions and can open your eyes to the whole situation.
Getting unstuck. Let’s say your employee rarely seems to make progress on one aspect of their job like sending in status reports or proofing their work. Instead of asking, “Why haven’t you completed the reports?” Or “Why don’t you check your work?”, you could ask:
What have you tried so far?
How did it go?
What is getting in the way?
Who could help you?
What other resources do you need?
It’s important that this doesn’t open the door to you, as the boss, to take over. It’s more about discovery for your employee to find ways to get unstuck. Instead of you prescribing the answer.
Look for understanding. What can be loaded into “why” is implying that the employee isn’t good enough. Like, “Suzy finished on time so why didn’t you? “Or “Joe’s slideshow had 50 slides, why did you only have 10 slides?” This is loaded with blame and makes the employee feel less than. You could ask instead:
What was your thought process…?
What other options have you explored?
How did you arrive at this decision?
Tell me more.
Tell me about that.
It’s important at this point to sit back and listen with an open mind and curiosity. Frequently, if we are a new leader or new to the organization, we feel like we need to have an answer and solution for everything instead of looking for the wisdom in those that work for us.
As a coach, I really try to steer clear of Why, and a little bit of shorthand for me is to ask either, “How” or “What” or “Help me understand”. How about you? What do you use in place of Why?