When you shouldn't start with why

Through his popular book and videos, Simon Sinek has become known for his leadership message - ‘start with why’.

In summary he says that great leaders inspire action by knowing and communicating the ‘why’ or the purpose of their organisation or leadership. He maintains that it’s not about what we do or how we do it that inspires people, it’s about why we do things. So talking about the ‘why’ is very important. Simon is absolutely right and it got me thinking. Is there ever a time when it’s not a good idea to start with why?

And the answer is yes… with some caveats. Starting with why works best if it's in a particular direction of communication – that is outwardly offering your why to set up purpose and inspire engagement. If however, you want to understand the why of others then it’s best not to start with the actual word ‘why’. Let me explain.

When you start with why by offering the purpose of the activity, you give the activity meaning and a way for people to connect into it with their values and their internal motivation. This is useful. Tick.

When you start with the word ‘why’ by asking the reason or the purpose behind an action, you can set off a threat response in the brain of the other person and push them into a defensive mode. Not useful. No tick.

Here are some examples of when it’s not useful to start with the actual word ‘why’ when asking the purpose behind an action or activity. The first question is the question asked aloud. The question in brackets is what the brain can hear internally when in defensive mode.

  • Why do you want it? (Should you really be working on this?)
  • Why are we doing it this way? (Why are you even in charge of this project?)
  • Why do both teams need to be involved? (Why don't you trust my judgement here?)

I get ‘not asking why’ is tough. Dumping the why is like asking you to pack up Google. It brings a wealth of information your way. My clients often ask, “but how do I find out the answers if I can’t ask why?” “Why is part of my critical thinking tool kit. I ask 5 whys all the time. What about that?” Here are my tips:

Tip 1 – Replace why with the following options:
‘Can you help me understand a bit more about the purpose of …?’
‘Can you tell me a little more about how you want to use the report you’re asking for?’
‘Can you share some of the thinking behind this decision. I’m keen to understand more.’

Tip 2 – Frame your use of why so people are clear it’s not an attack on them or their ideas:
‘Hmm interesting challenge. Let’s use the 5 Whys methodology for critical thinking to see what we can find out here. It helps us drill down to levels of insight that are hard to see on the surface.’ (See how we are sharing the why so we can ask the why? Clever huh?)

So the take away is this, start with why when you are sharing information, and avoid the word why if you are gathering information.

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