When I was a Marketing Director, a member of the salesforce desperately wanted to move into marketing. Convinced he'd be "Awesome!", I invited him for a 6-month stint on the team.
He wasn't awesome. But he could have been.
To this day, I'm fairly sure I did a brilliant job of killing his enthusiasm.
He would bounce into my office, bursting to tell me about his latest scheme to increase market share. I'd listen and my mind would immediately move to all the reasons why his ideas wouldn't work.
At the time, I thought I was being a 'good leader' by asking, "Why would you do that?"
The first time I asked that [seemingly innocuous] question, I didn't really notice his reaction.
The second, third, and fourth time I asked it, I saw a pattern.
He would mumble, stutter, speak more quietly, try to 'get it right' and find the sweet spot that would win my approval.
The more I asked "Why?", the more diluted, hesitant, and people-pleasing he became.
I was having tea with my Dad one day. Being a very wise man, I told him about the difficulties I as having and he said, "Why do you ask him like that?"
Immediately, I became defensive and told my Dad that it was my job to make sure people had thought things through and clearly, this guy hadn't.
My Dad then said, "Why are you being defensive?"
I responded with, "I'm not being defensive!!!" in a rather defensive tone!
"Okay, then why are reacting like that?" Dad asked.
"Like what?" I snapped.
Dad said, "Do you see it yet?"
"See what?", I said.
"Why", said Dad. Whenever you ask someone "Why", they believe you think they're an idiot. They either accept your judgment and believe it, or they try to prove they're not!"
Dad went on to explain that whenever you ask someone why they did something - especially someone less experienced or junior - their mind immediately shoots to "This person thinks I'm stupid/I've missed something/I can't do my job etc." The follow from that is "They're right and I'm wrong", or "I'm bloody well not an idiot!" The person either acquiesces or comes out fighting. Either way, you've lost a potentially great idea, and the trust of an employee.
Another leadership lesson from the 'School of Dad'.
That conversation happened around 15 years ago. It has stuck with me ever since.
I rarely ask someone "Why?" Instead, I ask "Help me to understand.....", and "What information was considered?", and "Please could you walk me through it.", and "What pitfalls could you encounter?", and "What gaps did you identify?", and "What do you believe are the chances of success?"
You get the idea.
'Why' is off the menu!
- 'Why' is lazy leadership.
- 'Why' sounds accusatory; even when coming from a place of genuine curiosity.
- A half-baked idea that someone wholeheartedly believes in is better than a perfected idea that no one fully owns.
- A leader's role is to help people to learn; not to teach them.