The Corrosive Power of “Why?”

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP


In the hands of an effective leader, “why” can be empowering. We can all use a little guidance to explore our goals and motives for our ideas and the projects we want to pursue. A leader who supportively asks the right “why” questions, such as, “Why is that project important to you?,” “Why are you choosing to start the project now?,” and “Why do you want to explore this issue? ” can help team members focus their efforts to more deeply examine their goals, methods, and expectations. Also, instead of making statements of judgment about what a leader thinks about another’s actions, motivations, and feelings, a leader’s wise and genuine use of “why” questions can help team members think and judge these matters for themselves.

In the hands of an ineffective leader, “why” can become corrosive and demoralizing. “Why” questions can be used as a means for accusing, belittling, and confronting. There is a lot of power in “Why?” and leaders should exercise care in their tone, demeanor, and motives for asking. Consider these examples and what to do instead.

“Why” as Interrogation
The leader asks a barrage of questions to dig deep into an employee’s rationale and motives, much like a lawyer cross examining a hostile witness:

“Why did you take that step?” “After you did that, why did you go and do …” “Why did you decide to call Jane about …?”

An employee’s actions and behaviors may leave you confused, so getting clarity on the facts may be necessary at times. But pummeling an employee like a hostile witness is, well, hostile and certainly doesn’t demonstrate concern for the employee or a desire to correct performance issues in a supportive way. Try instead prefacing your inquiry with statements that show your intent to help the employee work through the quagmire: “Could you walk me through the steps you took on this project? I’d like to understand it better and help you work through the difficulties you’ve been experiencing.” If you need to dig deeply into the facts, watch your tone and delivery as not to put the employee on the defensive.

“Why” as a “Gotcha”
The leader learns something about an employee’s actions or behaviors that displeases her and asks “why” to pin the employee down:

“Why did you go to other administrators about that project rather than come to me first? Why did you go over my head?”

The leader in this instance may believe she is providing the employee an honest opportunity to explain his actions, state his side of the story, or correct the facts. But it is off-putting as it begins with the assumption of guilt. Leaders must examine their own motives for exploring their concerns. You may have a legitimate need to explore an employee’s actions that go against expectations. But is your concern for the employee or about being right? If you have such concerns, be objective and factual about what you learned rather than begin with a “why” question that automatically places guilt. Then, inquire about the employee’s actions: “The other day, I was informed you had discussed this matter with Vice Chancellor Kline and also Dean Morgan. I’d like to get your perspective on this situation. Could you help me understand what you did and why?”

“Why” as Accusing and Belittling
The leader engages in biting, critical “why” questions, often with pejorative and offensive labeling:

Why did you do a dumb thing like that? Why are you making such a big deal about such a silly thing? Why are you being so emotional right now? Why don’t you ever respond to my emails like a normal person?

Labels like “dumb,” “silly,” “emotional,” and “normal” are loaded with underlying messages of harsh judgment and criticism. Recipients may rightly consider such messages to be bullying. Don’t do this.

“Why” as Derailing or Undermining Efforts
The leader questions an employee’s motives and actions for work the leader had previously authorized, or that the employee thought had been authorized:

Upon returning from a meeting, an employee reports to her supervisor that she agreed to take on a project, which she had previously discussed with the supervisor. The supervisor responds, “Why did you agree to take on the project? Why did you agree to those terms? That isn’t what we discussed.”

Leaders must be clear about their directions and level of authority they’ve given employees to act. Whether deliberate or benign, or due to a lack of self-awareness about their inconsistent directives, some leaders leave employees in doubt about the authority they’ve granted and then take back the authority employees thought had been conferred. If you believe you’ve been clear and the employee has acted outside the scope of the authority you granted, don’t by sly with “why” questions or other messages that convey suspicion and doubt. Be direct: “It seems there has been a misunderstanding about what I asked you to do in this situation. Let’s talk this through and see how we can correct the situation.”

“Why” as Intrusion and Judgment
While appearing curious about an employee’s personal life or opinions, the leader’s questions are stated in ways that imply judgment about lifestyle and life choices:

“Why don’t you have kids? Why did you vote for …? Why are you going to eat there (at a restaurant not known for healthy choices)? Why do you want to see the whales at Sea World? Why don’t you buy organic? Why don’t you straighten your hair?”

It is natural to want to engage in small talk about our lives outside of work or about our personal choices and preferences. But if the context of your inquiry isn’t genuine or based on a desire to connect authentically, your inquiries may be perceived as intrusions and judgments about life choices and political and social views, or as imposing your views as politically correct or morally superior. Some inquiries also portray cultural insensitivity towards individuals whose cultural identity and preferences are simply different than your own.

Use care in your use of “why” questions. They can either empower or diminish the employees you lead. To be an effective leader, it is crucial that you know the difference.

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