Explain the “Why” – The Forgotten Leadership Question

As we continue to adapt to leadership in the COVID-19 era, one thing that remains constant is the desire to fixate on who, when, where, what, and how. I have regrettably seen these exact words spelled out numerous times in emails recently.

However, one of the most fundamental communication issues missing is, to me, the most important, since there is more to effective communication than explaining the who and how. That missing piece is the why.

  • Why has something been prioritized?
  • Why is someone asking for this information?
  • Why is the work someone is doing necessary?
  • Why are we having this meeting? (something for which we can all relate).

 

Perhaps that is because explaining why takes time, and leaders feel their authority is sufficient, or they believe, wrongly, that everyone already understands why a decision is made.

Leadership is difficult at any level, and vague communications exacerbate an already challenging job. Not only should you not assume everyone understands what your message means, but I suggest assuming that it may vague or unclear.

With this philosophy, I always explain the why, even when it is not asked, as it helps the team and your subordinates have a clear understanding on your intent and direction.

What happens if you do not do this? More than likely subordinates will not ask for clarification—a request which they may think looks them less engaged, or embarrassed. They then move forward with vague instructions to their respective teams, all of whom then develop their own interpretations of what is being asked.

What are the normal results? Frustration, misalignments, not properly prioritizing your tasks, and underperformance. This is then followed up with “I was just doing what you wanted” when you try to course correct.

This does not even factor in the precious time that is wasted, talented people leaving through attrition, and projects running over-budget.

Explaining why also allows other team members to lead, have a deeper understanding of what they are doing, and know how to make decisions when you are not there. This is important since leaders cannot be, nor should be, everywhere and making all the decisions (unless you are a micro-manager, and thus a bad leader).

This communication trait is very important in an environment of change, or when simply the status quo needs to be disrupted. This is especially true when decisions need to be made in government management, which tends to rely on status quo and risk aversion.  When leaders meet with the team (both individually and in small groups) to explain why certain decisions are made, I have seen several benefits:

  • Explaining how certain decision were reached builds confidence through transparency, which then helps provide insight into the decision-making process and builds the next set of leaders.
  • By taking the time to explain why, the team understand that the leader respects them, and not just the task. How have you felt when decisions are just made behind closed doors, and then you are told to do something without any understanding other than “because I am the boss”? Disengaged and marginalized.
  • This leadership style builds trust, which allows people to better understand perspective, even if they do not agree with the decisions. I have also seen leaders actively solicit feedback, to get diverse opinions, and ensure they still have the same decision as new data may factor into the decision.

 

This is ultimately about leaders creating important critical-thinking skills of their team, and explaining why is one of the most effective weapons in a leaders arsenal.

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