Brenda's Blog

The Single Worst Question You Can Ask at Work: The Power of Eliminating “Why”?

shutterstock_44541121Asking direct reports or coworkers questions rather than always telling them what to do is an important way to develop their abilities, help them grow, strengthen engagement, and improve relationships. But, there is one question-word in your tool chest that I suggest you eliminate entirely:

“Why?”

If you think about it, the very nature of the question causes defensiveness. Even the most seemingly innocent questions like “So, why are you wearing that tie today?” or “Why did you go to Frankfurt last month?” can cause the most mild-mannered individuals to feel as though they need to defend themselves.

There’s nothing positive about the defensiveness that results when a “why” question is asked. In fact, depending on the specifics of the question, asking “why” can actually imply blame, create suspicion, and break down trust. It fosters an immediate “you vs. me” feeling and can even subconsciously put people into fight-or-flight mode. When shadowing executives in the workplace, I’ve seen “why” questions create antagonistic relationships and even cause otherwise dependable employees to hide important information from their bosses.

“Why” questions also tend to keep you in the past. Try asking a “why” question that is focused positively toward the future. I think it’s impossible! That’s because “why” is most often about what happened yesterday or about a problem happening today. It’s rarely about what can be done to find a solution to a problem or move toward a positive future state.

For example, questions like “Why did you do it that way?” or “Why are you late?” are destructive because the recipient of the question will no doubt feel put down and guilty as a result. These questions do nothing to motivate people to find constructive new ways of thinking and acting in the future.

“What” and “How” Questions

So, how do you get past asking “why?” when you want to achieve better understanding?  Achieve better results by replacing “why” questions with forward-focused “what” and “how” questions. Here are a couple of examples of how to turn an accusatory “why” into a more forward-focused “what” or “how” question. You can hopefully see how these types of “what” and “how” questions lead to powerful and innovative thinking, proactive planning, and visioning for the future.

“Why” Question: “Why isn’t this work completed yet?”   Replace with…

“What” or “How” Question: “What resources will it take to get this work done on time?

 

“Why” Question: “Why did you do it that way?”  Replace with…

“What” or “How” Question: “How will the approach you chose help us reach our objective for this project?”

 

Do be careful, though. “What” and “how” questions can sometimes be “why” questions in sheep’s clothing. For example, nicer-sounding phrases like “What’s the basis of your thinking?” or “What caused you to be late today?” might start with the word “what” but are simply “why” questions in hidden form!

The Power of Eliminating “Why”

Deborah was the head of internal audits for a large multinational corporation. She wasn’t happy in her job, and the morale of her team was also way down. She felt that she and her team had fairly combative relationships with other departments in the organization.

Just like a root canal, everybody throughout the organization dreaded the arrival of the auditing team. After all, it was the auditors’ job to investigate what everyone else might be doing wrong and then tell them to correct it. The entire company knew that the team sometimes had to report big discrepancies to the Board. As a result, Deborah and her direct reports had been branded the “ugh people” because everyone said “ugh!” whenever the team showed up….

This might sound like an insurmountable problem, but it turned out that Deborah and her team relied primarily on “why” questions to carry out their auditing work. “Why did you take that approach?” and “Why didn’t you follow the agreed-to process?” were the typical questions asked.

Realizing that the way Deborah and her team were questioning others might be impacting the outcomes, they began to replace “why” queries with “what” and “how” questions. For example, rather than ask, “Why did you do it that way?” Deborah’s team of auditors asked, “What are your long-term objectives, and how does the procedure you used support them?” A question like, “Why didn’t you follow standard operating procedures?” was replaced with, “How well did the process work for you, given that it was not the standard protocol?”

whyWhen Deborah and her team shifted the way they interacted with their internal auditing clients, the results were almost immediate!  One by one, team members began reporting that company employees had a much less negative attitude toward them and began to see the team as there to help rather than judge. Within 30 days, members of the auditing department reported being able to build better, more trusting relationships across the organization. And, importantly, the morale of Deborah’s team improved.

As a big plus, the auditing team members shared with Deborah that they were even receiving more honest answers to their non-threatening, open-ended questions—the kind of information that helped them do their jobs better.

Be on the “Why?” alert!

If you are someone who uses “Why” questions regularly on the job, begin to catch yourself and make adjustments, rephrasing your questions to begin with “What” and “How.” You will no doubt find that your team members and coworkers respond much more positively once you say goodbye to “Why.”

Don’t Just Sit There!

SITTING is big news – well, at least the detrimental effects of too much sitting, that is. The scientific community has coined a new phrase to label it — “sitting disease.”  In short, as a friend of mine says, “Sitting is the new smoking.”

But as leaders, our jobs often require that we sit for many hours in a day, working on our computers, attending meetings, and talking on the phone. In fact, my executive coaching clients often tell me they spend so many hours working (and sitting) that they often don’t have time to fit exercise into their schedule.

The harsh truth is that too much sitting is killing us – slowly, but literally.

A few hard facts:

  • According to a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, sitting most of the day makes our risk of heart attack the same as for people who smoke.
  • James Levine, M.D. puts it this way, “Today, our bodies are breaking down from obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, depression, and the cascade of health ills and everyday malaise that come from what scientists have named sitting disease.”
  • An American Cancer Society study found that women who were inactive and sat over six hours a day were 94% more likely to die during the time period studied than those who were physically active and sat less than 3 hours a day. For men, the statistic isn’t nearly as bad, but it’s still dire at 48% more likely to die. And the physical activity levels of the individuals didn’t matter!
  • A study at the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in Australia found that we are 40% at greater risk of death if we sit for long periods. They also found that prolonged sitting disrupts metabolic function and decreases insulin sensitivity, causing blood sugar problems.

Walk While You Work

So, what’s the solution? Since exercising more may not even counter the number of hours we sit, you can either stand more while you work or do what I’m doing now – combine work time with exercise! You can improve your health without the need to find time in your calendar to write “go to the gym.” All you need is my new productivity tool – a Treadmill Desk!

I’ve wanted one for a really long time, but they weren’t available in Singapore. Then, we finally found a company that could offer one. Now, when I would normally have to sit at my desk to do work, I just hop on the treadmill and get in a good walk. I love it! I’m burning calories, staying active, and still accomplishing my “to do” list. It feels great!

“Sounds expensive?” you say? We were pleasantly surprised to find out that the treadmill desk I chose wasn’t as expensive as we thought it would be. In fact, if you are Singapore based, I can get you a good deal. Just email me at Brenda@brendabence.com if you’re interested, and get yourself moving!

 

When Risking Failure is a Good Thing

How can failing ever be a good thing? The best leaders know that if you aren’t risking failure at least part of the time, you’re playing it so safe that no one on your team is learning and growing. “Failing small” can be a great way for everyone in your company to learn. After all, isn’t that how you learned the best lessons in your own career?

Sounds intriguing but not sure how to put this into action?

–          Allow enough leeway in projects so that if small failures occur, you have time to recover, learn specific lessons from the failures, and get back on track.

–          If you’re concerned about your employees making costly mistakes, determine the points at which you need to influence the project’s outcome the most. Then, set up specific times to meet with your direct reports, either by date or by completion of certain steps (check out the “metered with milestones” delegation style in Would YOU Want to Work For YOU™?). In that case, if something is truly off track, you can realize it, say something, coach them through it, and have enough time to make a correction.

Playing it 100% safe in business is not how the most successful companies have gotten where they are today. You have to step out and take calculated risks now and then in order to get big rewards. What risks will YOU take today?

Brenda Bence Bio

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Open, Closed, and Numbers Questions

As a leader of others, the type of questions you ask can make a big difference in how well those questions empower and help team members grow.

First and foremost, think in terms of “open” instead of “closed” questions.

Open questions lead to answers filled with information. Beginning with words such as “who, what, when, where, and how,” open-ended questions are crafted in ways that encourage direct reports to open up and share answers in depth. An example would be, “How would you describe our company’s culture?”

Closed questions can only be answered directly with a word or two, such as “Do you like the culture here?” This limiting question, calling for either a “yes” or “no” answer. This kind of answer doesn’t lead you very far, and it certainly doesn’t kick-start a dialogue.

Use Numbers! Our brains love questions with a number in them! They’re great for stimulating creativity, focusing thoughts, and providing a simple framework within which to work. If you find a team member getting stuck with a particular problem, pose a numbers question, and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised how well it opens up a dialogue and creates a breakthrough.

Here are some examples:

“What are the three major challenges preventing us from reaching our goals?”

“What are the top four approaches we could pursue for the XYZ project …?”

“Let’s brainstorm the five most powerful ways we could …”

“What are the three most important steps we could take to achieve …?”

Brenda Bence Bio

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Powerful Questions

The best way to develop your team is by asking powerful questions. Yes, it’s true that this can take slightly more time than immediately telling employees what to do. But, if you don’t make the time to ask questions of your team members, you will end up being the one answering all of the questions and doing more work than necessary — a sign that your team has become dependent on you. And once that happens, you’ll never step out of that never-ending cycle unless you make the decision to change your behaviors and begin asking vs. telling.

In fact, I believe that asking instead of telling is a fundamental behavior of great leaders. In my shadowing experience, I see that the strongest leaders are those who don’t respond to queries from their staff right off the bat—that is, they don’t tell an staff member what to do and then send the employee away to implement the plan. Instead, they ask powerful questions that get team members to stop, reflect, grow, and challenge him/herself. Read the rest of this entry »

Soaring vs. Swooping

Successful leaders spend more time “soaring” than “swooping.” What does this mean? Their job is to focus on the vision for where the company is going and on planning through others the “how” of achieving that vision. On occasion, however, a leader may need to swoop down and check out the details of a particular situation or project to make sure all is going well.

The key is to not spend too much time in the details but to soar back up to vision and planning as quickly as possible. When leaders become engrossed with details, they tend to take two different approaches which can be counterproductive rather than productive: Read the rest of this entry »

Development is an Ongoing Task

 

professional-development

In my recently released book – “Would You Want to Work For You?” How to Build an Executive Leadership Brand that Inspires Loyalty and Drives Employee Performance – I argue that building people is simply part of your job as a leader, and I offer strategies for developing your employees on a day-to-day basis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Where do you place your focus as a leader?

The focus of your attention affects everything you do as a leader. Where you choose to place your focus and how you choose to use your time says as much about you as a leader as any other indicator.

A model called the “Five Levels of Focus” gives you a simple but powerful framework for this. Created by Australian author and consultant David Rock, applying the Five Levels of Focus helps leaders choose where to place their energy and attention at any point in time. According to this model, there are five distinct levels: (1) Vision, (2) Planning, (3) Details, (4) Problems, and (5) Drama.

Read the rest of this entry »

Would you rather be liked or respected?

 Liked vs Respected

As leaders, we want to be liked, but we also want to be respected. Can we be both? Not only do I believe it’s possible, but I’ve personally witnessed many leaders walking a beautifully balanced line between the two.

Accomplishing both isn’t always easy, though. What happens when the balance tips too far in one direction or the other?

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Quiz: What is the #1 cause of employee turnover?

 

Bad-management

To answer this question, take a moment to reflect on the best and the worst jobs you’ve ever had. What role did your boss play in how you felt about those positions? If you’re like a large number of the leaders I’ve worked with, the best jobs you’ve had involved a great boss who spent time with you and taught you a lot. Your worst jobs, on the other hand, probably involved a boss you didn’t like that much—someone who micromanaged your activities or put you down.

Read the rest of this entry »