“WHY” not!

One of the perennial complaints Sr. Leaders (read “Clients”) have with their “Consultants” (Internal), in Organizations, has been – there are too many questions and some of them aren’t even necessary. I don’t even know if theres any light at the end of the tunnel after all that questionsing. Jeez, what’s he? My wife?

On close inspection one would find that the real questions causing the above acidity are specifically the ones that begin with “Why”. And humans have been tuned since the moment they start putting words to their thoughts (In the prime of their Toddler-ship days), to ask a bunch of “Whys”. These habits of asking “why’s” become full blown and fairly hard-coded in our behavior, as we grow. And mostly remain in the “Unconscious Competence” stage where without any effort it slips out and end up causing unnecessary situations which with a bit of awareness could be so very different.

Lets examine, whats the pitfall of “Why”. Lets take an example, one that I keep taking with many new managers. New managers are very enthusiastic of their new found position of power, and sometimes tend to exercise this at inpopportune moments. One such person (whom I had the priviledge to work closely as a short-term coach), once in his prime enthusiasm of being a new manager asked on of his team members who arrived at the office late, “Why are you late?”. Well, the recipient of that power wasn’t particluarly having a great day – a flat tyre, rains et al, his patience was thin as a wafer. And the consequence was a showdown that was epic by all standards and required external interventions for sanity to prevail. Nevertheless, there was a lot of bad breath in the team that was caused due to this incident and many  similar ones where there were too many “Why’s” from this particular manager. During my coaching we went over several such instances and reflected upon – what could have been done differently, and my client realized that those “Why’s” in some unconscious manner pointed a finger at the other person and the response was inevitbaly either strong defense or in some case Offence,

In case of a consultant – client relationship too, too many “whys” might create a climate of Defence where the client would be overtly defending the situation / action – in question, or sometimes come back hard to overcome the so called accusatory finger. Lets take this example – Recently during one of my conversations with a certain leader, i committed the sin of “Why”. The issue at hand was a decision the leader was sticking to, which was causing a bit of a turbulance in the ecosystem around her, and my question came out as “Why are you holding onto this, so strongly” and she did come back hard defending this. For a moment there wasnt much progressive rational discussion – only Regressive Defensive emotional rant. i realised my mistake and rephrased it as “Ok, What’s on your mind? what’s the plan with this decision? What and how do you intend to do with this?” and what came out was a white board full of Fact, plan, diagrams with a concrete depiction of the future in mind of the leader, and what ensued was a much productive discussion around – what and how we can take this forward, what would be the possible challenges, Who would be our promoters and who the detractors, How can we make more alliances to ensure we can make this happen etc etc.

So when i think back, the Why question  makes the other person the “Issue” (Why are YOU late – YOU are the problem – Hence YOU defends). And the moment we change that to What Happenned  it becomes – You Me and there is an issue, i.e. What. In this case a similar question would have brought out a response like “Oh ! bad day…flat tyre, rians, I am drenched, I am just too worked up at the moment”, that would have given so many facts for the manager to “Behave” in a manner that would have made the other person feel “better”. And an accumulation of such small incidents only add to the cumulative reputation / respect counter of the manager.

Many managers feel they have done all good things for their teams yet have difficulty connecting wiht their teams. They cant figure out What is wrong with their teams – because they keep asking “Why” and keep defending themselves. If they think “what” they would probably go with an open mind and take 360 degree feedback from their ecosystem.

Its always very productive to be conscious during any dialogues (Manager – Subordinate, Consultant – Client, Parent – child, Teacher – Student etc.) to stop before asking a “Why” and replace it with the other 5 Ws & 1 H (What/Who/Which/Where/When/How).

These effective questioning would:

  • Bring out many facts, that would aid a much well informed decision making
  • Aid a progressive forward looking discussion instead of Regressive Being stuck in the past situation

So, Happy Questioning !


One thought on ““WHY” not!

  1. Hi Sheel,

    It has been a good learning from what you have explained here about questioning “Why” at different situations makes an individual to be defensive.

    From little knowledge I have, the two perspectives and views towards this finding may be given more insigt.

    As per knowledge management principles, the mind always look for information or data that leads to questions like “What”, “Where”, “When” first. As a next step, the mind seeks answers for little challenging question “How”. When one finds the answers, then he/she becomes knowledgeable. Then the same mind seek for answers for the most challenging question “Why”. When one finds answers for this he/she becomes expert.

    From this principle, An expert with wisdom always approach with top to bottom approach
    Why should I do this – If there is an answer then he questions himself how it should be done and that leads him to look for answers for “what”, “when” and “where”, which relatively becomes easy.
    This is what a strong leader with wisdom always try to portray.

    An average or ordinary person always finds comfortable with bottom to top approach whereas this is opposite to what strong leader tries to potray.

    Similarly, when I ask my leader/expert “what” will you do, that will make him defensive since he does not have an answer. But he knows why it should be done.

    With this principle of knowledge, how one’s mind is trained to one of these portrays it makes them to be in defensive position because they do not have an answer.

    The inference is that asking the right questions to the understanding the potray makes more relevant.

    Please ask me if I have not coined my thoughts correctly.

    Happy Questioning


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