Leaders Must Know the Why

Written By Randy Hall  |  Coaching, Leadership 


The question I ask most when I’m working with leaders and managers is “why”.  Managers will say things about their employees like “they just don’t care about the results like I do” and I typically ask…why?  I don’t do it to be contentious or even because I want the answer.  The whole point of the question is that if leaders are working on a symptom rather than the disease they won’t be successful at making things better.  Most of the time, managers can’t answer the question because they’ve never thought about why.  Or even worse, they have made up their own answer without actually taking the time to find out the truth.  That’s when I get comments like “I just think that’s his personality” or “Some people just don’t get it”.  What these comments say is that the leader hasn’t taken the time to find out why the individual is operating the way he or she is, and so they made up their own answer, typically one that screams “it’s not my fault this person is all screwed up and there’s nothing I can do to change it.”  This is often much easier than figuring out the truth and helping the person achieve more of his or her potential by removing the roadblock.  However, this path changes absolutely nothing and renders the manager completely ineffective.


A manager, we will call her Lisa, was being challenged by an employee, Jim, who had begun to talk negatively about the people around him.  He consistently pointed out the shortcomings of new team members and insisted that they were making his job harder and hurting the business.  The manager became quite frustrated and labeled Jim, who had been a stellar employee in the past, as a troublemaker with a bad attitude.  The reality was that Jim was beginning to feel threatened as the business grew and some strong individuals were added to the team.  Jim’s insecurity was causing him to pull the people around him down in order to retain his turf and his place in the pecking order.  The situation was spiraling out of control until the manager understood that Jim doesn’t need to be berated for his behavior, he needs to be coached at the source of the problem.  He felt like his contributions mattered less than they used to and he needed reinforcement to know that he was still highly valued and, in fact, needed to help lead the people around him, not tear them down.  He began to look at his value differently, not just as an individual contributor, but as a person who helps those around him grow, learn, and accomplish more.  This shift in perspective completely changed Jim’s approach to retaining his value.

A manager, Aaron, was concerned that one of his employees, Cheryl, who used to be fully engaged and a contributor to growth in the business stopped bringing new ideas and new energy to the discussions.  She seemed to be showing up more for the paycheck these days than for the opportunity to contribute and make a difference.  A little investigation revealed that Cheryl felt that lately, several of her ideas had simply been dismissed or she had received no feedback at all on their merit for the business.  As the business grew, time became a limiting factor and the discussions that were previously had about her thoughts and ideas, good or bad, had stopped as people got busier.  The manager had allowed several emails or conversations with Cheryl to simply fade away with no action or even comment.  Her perception was that they no longer cared about what she had to say so she stopped putting the extra effort in to contribute to the business and simply decided to just do her job.   Cheryl disengaged because Aaron’s actions sent the message that she should.

A leader, Mark, had noticed a significant change in the relationship with one of his team members, Maggie.  She no longer responded to his coaching the way she used to and their conversations had become tense and short.  She consistently stated that everything was fine but clearly the relationship was different.  The manager assumed that she had some kind of personal issue outside of work that was affecting her attitude and that it would pass in time, and if not, he would have to take some action as Maggie was no longer productive in his view.  The reality was that Mark had shared some information with others that Maggie felt should have been kept between them and neither had been clear about the expected level of confidentiality.  Maggie felt like Mark couldn’t be trusted and so she stopped giving him permission to lead or coach her.  She stopped having candid conversations and essentially stopped listening to Mark’s advice.  Trust is essential in any coaching relationship and once it’s broken, it takes time to repair.  The two were encouraged to sit down and work the issue out and during the conversation, both realized that they had a different perspective on the situation and as they worked through it they began to repair the trust they needed to move forward with the relationship.  That relationship was critical for the business to be successful and it directly affected productivity and the bottom line.

Figuring out the “why” is essential if you are going to lead and coach others effectively.  Unfortunately, we usually get the “why” wrong if we simply make our own assumptions and in some cases, people don’t share it with us as clearly or quickly as we would like.  It takes some time, observation, and a genuine desire to learn about it for us to get past the symptoms of poor performance and find the causes.  Rarely do people show up at work and want to do the wrong thing all day.  Usually there is something within the culture, the coaching or the leadership of the organization that is driving behavior to places where it’s not helping the business succeed.  Great leaders know that the “why” is the key to solving the problem and growing the business.

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