How teams can benefit most from ‘why?’ questions

My recent post about facilitating teamwork by asking the right questions led PierG (aka Piergiorgio Grossi) to ask a good question of his own, Is ‘why?’ the right question to facilitate teamwork? As I began drafting a comment back, I realized it would be useful to explore the issue more fully in a post.

The conversation actually began some months ago when PierG had that the ‘why’ question can be a barrier to effective communication because,

It automatically puts your counterpart in a defense mode: when we hear the magic sound of why our brains try to justify the problem/behavior with the effect of enforcing it. It’s natural, our brains look for the quickest solution to avoid pain!

He offered some alternatives,

So I’d probably (try to) substitute the why with a ‘what can we do to avoid the problem in the future?’, ‘how can we approach this stuff differently?’ ‘what can we do to understand the problem?’ …

In fact you are not looking for the cause just to know it, you are looking for it because you want to avoid it in the future.

PierG is on target to point out that the ‘why’ question may be taken as a challenge more than an inquiry, especially when something has gone wrong. “Why did that [bad thing] happen?” can easily be interpreted as finger-pointing, as in “who’s fault is it?” The blame game can quickly ensue. To avoid this result, the person asking ‘why’ should focus on understanding the problem and finding solutions, as PierG suggests.

Having said that, I still would not want to banish the ‘why’ question from a team’s vocabulary because asking ‘why’ provides a number of advantages that less direct approaches might miss. My post last week, which PeirG asked for more comments about, included the following:

Why questions – these examine the underlying rationale for actions, processes, or circumstances; useful for problem solving, planning and several other purposes, as explained here and here.

I would like to elaborate more on the two posts referenced, because they do such a good job at describing the benefits of asking ‘why.’

Glen Stansberry’s post discusses 6 Reasons for Asking Why. Glen’s main point is that we ask ‘why’ to clarify the reason we are undertaking certain activities or making certain decisions. In turn, the clarity of purpose generates benefits, which I have related to teamwork. Asking ‘why’…

  1. Defines Success – by identifying the team’s purpose, team members can know when they are successful
  2. Creates Decision Making Criteria – a clear purpose helps the team decide where to put it time and resources
  3. Aligns Resources – similar to #2, allows the team to link specific resource allocations to key objectives
  4. Motivates – team members are motivated when it is clear their efforts are contributing to the team’s purpose
  5. Clarifies Focus – again, a clear purpose helps identify where to concentrate efforts
  6. It Expands Options – by focusing narrowly, rather than broadly, teams can consider more alternative strategies and tactics

Another benefit of asking ‘why’ is that it allows teams to get to the root cause of situations. For example, Rosa Say provides an example of asking ‘why’ five times, a technique suggested in Laurence Haughton’s book, It’s Not What You Say, It’s What You Do. The technique can provide the team with a clear and accurate assessment of a problem before it attempts to create a solution. Rosa suggests these five ‘why’ questions regarding any particular work function that the team may need to assess.

  • Why do we do it (whatever the function is) this way?
  • Why have we accepted this (the traditional, or precedent-comfortable form)?
  • Why haven’t we been bolder, or taken a different route? Can, and should we innovate?
  • Why do we perceive certain obstacles? Exactly what are the risks?
  • Why not tweak it somehow, experiment, or run a new pilot? What more can we learn?

If asked incorrectly, with the wrong intentions, asking ‘why’ is a sure fire way to put someone on the defensive. On the other hand, ‘why’ questions can help to quickly cut through the clutter to help teams solve problems and improve processes. To gain the benefits yet mitigate the cost, managers should help team members move beyond defensiveness and become accustomed to asking and answering ‘why’ questions.

Like PierG, I would love to hear your thoughts about ‘why’ questions.

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4 Responses to How teams can benefit most from ‘why?’ questions

  1. PierG says:

    Great post: thank you for your feedbck!

  2. […] I’d like to thank Blaine for the great comments about how the ‘why’ question can be dangerous AND helpful. You can read it in this post on his Stronger Teams Blog. […]

  3. Blaine, nice work. I think that the vocal inflection when asking “why?” is almost as important as the word itself if you want to avoid using it as a challenge. If the voice is sharpened like a sword, almost any word will cut the listener. We can gently probe by asking why or use one of the many alternative questions that get at the same thing. Either way, the end goal is a thoughtful conversation with revelations and “aha” moments that can foster change.

  4. Pier, Thank you for engaging on this and “speaking up” about the differences. Learning and growth comes out of such dialog!
    Steve, You are so right. The tone that we use in communicating with others makes all the difference. It sometimes requires forethought to craft our questions to illicit constructive responses, but its well worth the effort.
    A great thing occurs when team members develop higher levels of trust with one another, so that even direct questioning is not mistaken as a challenge. But that only comes with time, so the best practice, as you say, is to set the right tone.

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