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  • Writer's pictureEilish Jamieson

The most powerful word in leadership?

Updated: Nov 21, 2019

The most powerful word in leadership?

It's the secret that all 5-year-olds know only too well, yet we grown-ups forget all too easily. A simple why, used in the right way, is possibly the most powerful word a leader can have at their disposal.

'Why' can show curiosity, engagement, respect for the opinion of others, an interest or willingness to learn from the other party, humility. It requires you to listen since you requested the information, and contrary to what some might believe it empowers both sides.

Why are we doing this? Why are we doing it like this? Why do you think that? Why do you feel that way? Why can't we do x instead?

Why opens up the conversation to opportunities, sense-checking, creativity, reflection. Whilst we often question things openly in our daily musings, the use of why is seen at a declining rate the further up an organisation you go.

Some might fear that using why too much could be perceived as not knowing enough. These are possibly the same people who didn't put their hand up in class (I can say this, because I was one!). Being perceived to already know the answer can become very important in our traditional results-focused school system. For others at the top of the organisation, fear of impacting momentum or raising things 'too late in the day', can hold them back from asking the question that quite likely everyone in the room is thinking or feeling.

At a recent workshop I asked the audience, which was comprised of mostly mid-tier female executives, what holds them back from asking why more often. I was fascinated by some of the responses:

  • looking or sounding stupid, or expected to already know the answer

  • fear of being perceived as a disruptor, not showing support for the idea, project, etc

  • appearing to delay things, being indecisive or procrastinating

  • fear of being seen as too challenging, or pre-judging the answer

The underlying theme across these responses was one of conformity and perceptions. A phenomenon often witnessed in group dynamics, in a bid to increase acceptance to and by the group.

In environments with high levels of stereotyping and fast-paced decision-making, there is a lower probability that someone will question the norm or practice, especially if it risks delaying or holding up progress.

In his excellent book 'Thinking, Fast and Slow', Daniel Kahneman discusses the different parts of our brain engaged in different types of decision-making from auto-pilot, to snap judgements and gut instinct. In corporate environments with high levels of task-driven activity, many decisions will be made on auto-pilot or snap judgements using the prefrontal cortex. Questioning activities allow us to access the cerebral cortex, which enables more consciousness and ability to consider ourselves and the outside world. Some might suggest enabling more measured and considered decision-making (and what business doesn’t need more of that!). The very act of asking why enables both you and the other party to do exactly this.

All of the members of the workshop agreed that seeing senior leaders ask why more often, particularly during moments where the decision is time-pressured, would have a significant impact on how confident they felt about using it more themselves. Whilst this isn't just a gender issue, I frequently see women at board-level naturally more willing to ask ’the obvious question’ (although I wish they‘d stop calling it ‘a silly question‘) often bursting any emerging group think bubble well before it gains momentum. Can’t say I see the same at executive levels.

We don't have to go very far to see the effects of not questioning why. Many leaders and organisations have bore the costs of not doing so.

Reframing our use of why so that it is seen as a tool to collaborate thinking and strengthen decision-making, rather than to test or cast judgement, is key to embedding the practice in leadership and changing the tone from the top.

If you are not asking why, maybe you should ask yourself why, and you might want to start realising its value for yourself.


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