Dynamic Leadership Means Going Beyond Asking “Why?”

The key to a good leader is not just someone who asks the “why” behind a problem; they also ask the “what” and the “how.”

A leader’s role is to make positive things happen through working with others. If you’ve read management publications or regularly scan LinkedIn, you’ve likely seen that focusing on “asking why” has been a recent trend among those attempting to stimulate improvements, whether organizational or personal. There’s no question that it’s always good to know the background, forces and blockages that make up any current situation, but strong leaders don’t get fixated on this.

Sure, assessment is critical. Are you familiar with that ancient martial arts expression, “Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare”? To an extent, asking “why?” can help with the vision part. But too much emphasis can devolve into leadership daydreaming.

It’s good (and ironic) to understand why primarily focusing on “why?” isn’t enough—and can actually lead to other problems:

Overthinking (analysis paralysis) can just cycle into an endless loop. Some leaders can get so caught up with overly avoiding any risks that they stay stuck in status quo thinking and actions (“Well, we’ve always done it that way and it’s not so bad—and the alternative…”) I’ve also seen how for some people, overly focusing on “why” can serve to justify inaction.

“Why” can be a dead end. Sometimes, so much is hidden from view that we can’t see, much less understand, all forces at play that affect situations and reactions (internal to individuals, off-work influences, and more.) Contributors to any organizational problem—or even to a “straightforward” incident—are not always clear. In essence, sometimes leaders will never actually know “why” an event occurred, or they can only arrive at partial reasons at best.

“Why” creates false sense of securing change/doing an effective job leading. In fact, I’ve seen some leaders obsessing over assessing why their company’s safety culture is the way it is. These leaders often become so overwhelmed by all obstacles countering improvement that they basically give up, believing they’re facing an unwinnable battle. In this vein, be wary of overdoing engagement or other safety culture surveys without taking quick actions to improve what these surface; otherwise, leadership credibility can become tarnished.

Asking “why” can create pushback. My colleague Ron Bowles wrote, “I see ‘why?’ fitting as an incident investigation tool more than a leadership tool. Not that we shouldn’t ask why, but that asking why seven times works better at getting to a root cause than it does to determining why the employees at a long-established company don’t want to volunteer to participate in a management-driven safety process.”

Ron also indicates this may stifle motivation: “Knowing the ‘why’ won’t necessarily help us excite people about the opportunity to learn something that will benefit them, their families and their co-workers.”

This approach by itself doesn’t necessarily make things better in the real world. Consider this: even if it were possible to truly uncover and understand why workers avoid using personal protective equipment or why certain executives don’t actively champion safety, this doesn’t change their actions. Remember that actions are what ultimately matter. 

Leaders are change agents. And analysis doesn’t equate to change. The danger is that overly focusing on “asking why” can lead to assuming that intellectual understanding by itself is enough. It’s not. Ron Bowles has also found that, “motivation is often critical to making a change. World-class motivators focus on ‘why not?’ more than ‘why?’”

In the same way, even when a physician is able to accurately diagnose a chronic illness, this doesn’t cure it (down to the specific type of cancer out of over 100, according to the National Cancer Institute)—nor does labeling a condition as “a virus” when the doctor can’t do much to help someone get over it. So what? The patient is still ill. Yes, analysis can be a means to an end, but it isn’t the end in itself.

Artificial heart inventor, Robert Jarvik, contended that leaders are perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo, believing in continuous improvements, always bent on making things better. When it comes to leaders who thirst for moving up and beyond the current performance levels, it’s actually even more important to ask “what?” over “why?” to take the next step towards action.

Do so by applying what I call “The Power of Negative Thinking” to first determine “what” is getting in the way of change and then reducing these blockages. Remember that question marks are hooks, propelling us towards a certain direction of mindset. The question you form narrows you towards the path of where you’ll focus. In other words, rather than ask Why has this happened? or Why has our level of safety performance stubbornly remained at the same plateau?, instead follow those with “what?” questions that lead to action: What is getting in the way of safety performance improving? What factors or forces have been stymieing our attempts to improve culture? What is blocking our movement towards internalizing safety attitudes, beliefs and actions within each of our associates?

Israelmore Ayivor said, “Bear it in mind that people who do not take actions are not and cannot be leaders. Leadership is action.” To move from analysis to action, strategic leaders can start by assessing countervailing forces in any situation. They ask not just “why” things are as they are but also “why” they are not worse (or different). They ask “what” is blocking improvement. And then, most importantly, they take actions to target and reduce obstacles to positive change.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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