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Do you tell someone “WHY” along with “WHAT?”

How to get more performance from your directives

Empowering your direct reports with the reasons for your orders gives them incentive to act, motivation to accept authority, and purpose behind action.  I try to teach this with the simple phrase that is the headline of this insight.

Wouldn’t you want to know “why” if you thought an order illogical?

Think of the last time someone above you in your business or personal life gave you an order to do something that seemed either illogical or of low priority – to you.  If you accepted the authority of the person giving you the order, you just performed the task, probably either wondering if that person was nuts or whether you just didn’t understand the reason for the task.

How would you respond with more information?

What if that person had told you why it was important to be done, in clear terms that related to that person’s priorities?  Wouldn’t you be more prepared to perform the task knowing the context?

Here’s an example you will recognize from your life

[Email readers, continue here…]  I recently spoke with an old friend who is in sales.  He lamented the fact that his boss recently layered several more sales reports on him to complete each week, reducing his selling efficiency.  How many times have we heard this complaint, especially from sales people?  I suggested that he go back to his boss and explain that it would be more than just helpful to know why these new reports are needed, that even though the salesman has no need to know, it would certainly make doing the work less of a chore.  And by the way, I offered, if the boss could not explain why, there might be an opening to advance the argument that the trade in time between completing the new report and reduced sales call time might be worth a revisit of the order.

Would this weed out the unnecessary or ill-thought requests?

How many tasks, reports, and rules hang around the necks of people throughout a more mature organization, which remain as “what” without anyone remembering “why?”   It is probably as effective a tool for the manager as for the recipient of the order, to explain why when telling what to do.

Your employees or even your family members will appreciate the small extra effort, better understand the reason behind the request, and perform the act with more enthusiasm.  What’s not to like about that?

  • Arthur Lipper

    Responding to an instruction which is in conflict with the recipient’s view, may be addressed by the recipient composing an example of how that proposed would impact the example, to assure an understanding of that proposed.


  • Michael O'Daniel

    So what happened when your friend in sales went back to his boss with the question as to why the additional reports were necessary? Please don’t leave us in suspense…

    • Michael,
      I need to get back with him and ask if those reports were requested by his boss or one level or more higher. My bet is higher and never challenged. I am guilty of this even in my recent past. I fixated upon CMRR (contracted monthly recurring revenue) instead of simple MRR, requiring the company controller to research how much of their monthly SaaS revenues were still under contract and not expired or short term. A good exercise for sure. But it took her days. And my only reason for asking was to get another metric for valuing the company. I should have taken my own advice then and remembered to tell her WHY instead of just WHAT. She could have said that there were surely a few non-contracted or expired accounts and that she would research those when she had time. But she dropped everything to answer the question from above, not my intention…

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