Leadership Tip: Why Asking “Why” May Not Produce the Results You Want

Time to Read: 1.5 mins...  

The question “why?” has an inherent accusatory edge. When confronted with “Why did that happen? or “Why did you do that?” people tend to become defensive and try to avoid being blamed for something that may not be their fault. The answer they want to give is “I dunno!” But they won’t say that for fear of appearing ineffectual.

The intent in asking “why?” is to look backward and locate a root cause that can be acted upon quickly. Problem is that root causes are elusive and complex – simple answers are hard to find.

And, as long as someone is focusing on defending themselves from blame, they aren’t fully available to brainstorm and move forward.

Instead, ask What, Where, Who, When and How questions.
These questions are inherently neutral and not accusative. They encourage engagement in constructive dialogue. And they are aimed at finding a fix for the problem to move forward more effectively.

  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • What led up to this?
  • Who is impacted?
  • How are they impacted?
  • What have you tried to solve this?
  • What options do you/we have?
  • What approach do you recommend?
  • How can we prevent this from happening again?
  • When can this be fixed?
  • What resources (physical/training/personnel) do you need to make it right?
  • What approvals do you need to get it done?

Asking these questions will stimulate a dialogue that is likely to result in a solid plan of action and uncover some of those root issues as well.

Having suggested all this, please understand, I am not saying you should never ask “why.” It is a perfectly good and useful question when used selectively. Just think about whether it is the best question to ask in the situation you are facing.

Action Step:

  • The next time you reflexively want to ask “why?” - pause and think. Are there other questions that you could ask that will produce the result you want?

What questions would you add to the list? – share them below

Charles St.John

PS: If you are a US citizen at home or abroad, remember to vote!

  • Ken Loughridge says:

    How did you/they feel?
    Ken (Christchurch, NZ)

    • Charles St.John says:

      Hi Ken,
      You are right, asking about feelings (yours and theirs) is an important question to ask as well. As good problem solvers (head focus) we sometimes forget to check in on the emotional factors (gut stuff) that may contribute to things not going right.
      Excellent addition to the list.

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