Why Leaders Should Not Ask Why!

Laura had just finished expressing her concerns about a project deliverable and suggested an alternative approach for the team. Amanda, her supervisor, was impressed, and wanted to know more about Laura’s analysis of the situation and her recommendations. “Why do you think it is a mistake to integrate two of our current features into the upgrade without rethinking those features?” asked Amanda. “Why is your recommendation better than simply delivering the upgrade on time — with those features removed?” Laura’s response was cautious, defensive, perhaps even a little angry. Amanda should have known better — steer clear of “why.” A great leader does not ask why.

Amanda was genuinely excited about Laura’s thinking and her solutions. So she was surprised by Laura’s response. But she was reading Laura’s response correctly. The “why” questions did make Laura feel under attack and defensive. Laura was in fact a bit angry. As executive coaches, we know that questions leading with “why” are perceived by the person on the receiving end as a direct, inflammatory challenge.

The natural reaction to questions that use “why” is to respond defensively, even angrily. People typically feel they are under attack. They believe the validity and credibility of their thoughts, analysis, and recommendations are being questioned. This is especially true when the “why” questions are coming from a senior leader or a supervisor. “Oh my gosh, I’m being judged,” thought Laura, “I’m under attack. She thinks I’ve got it all wrong.”


An Approach that Avoids Asking Why

Amanda was seeking understanding. She wanted to know more. She wanted to appreciate the details and nuances of Laura’s thinking and her suggestions. Instead of automatically asking “why,” Amanda will build stronger relationships with employees and enjoy much more insightful and useful responses by reframing her questions:

  • What would customers do if… the two features were not included in the final release?
  • How does… rethinking those two features strengthen the product and help our customers?
  • What is it about… the features that make them important to the application?

Another effective technique is to simply say, “Tell me more…” or “Tell me more about that…” As explained in a column by David Marquet, in Forbes Magazine, this open-ended approach lets everyone know that “The boss is wearing a learning hat and coming from the perspective of curiosity.”


Now Try This!

Identify a project or task that a direct report is working on, and that you have questions about. First, frame your questions in a conventional “why” format. Write your questions out. For example:

“Why do you think it is a mistake to integrate two of our current features into the new upgrade without rethinking those features?”

Now, reframe your questions in a way that avoids asking “why” and creates a more positive environment for discussion and consideration:

“How does failing to rethink those two features impact our customers’ user experience?

“Tell me more about the importance of those two features for our customers.”

It takes practice to move away from knee-jerk “why” questions and to consistently ask positive, open-ended questions that will support better team performance and stronger outcomes. So keep at it!

To learn more about how to improve communication skills, change behaviors in a meaningful way, and develop your leadership skills, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.