What you do and how you do it are important. But it’s the “why” that provides the real motivation to succeed. 

The Power of Why

An experiment conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business demonstrates the power of “why.”  At a university call center where employees phone alumni to solicit donations, the staff was randomly divided into three groups:  The first group read stories written by former call center employees about the benefits of the job (such as improved communication and sales skills).  The second group shared accounts from former students about how their scholarships helped them with their education, careers and lives.  The third, a control group, read nothing, just explained the purpose of the call and asked for a contribution.  

After a month, the researchers found that the first group and the third group raised roughly the same amount of money from alumni after the experiment began as before.  But callers in the second group, who had related the stories about the impact of the scholarships students received from the fund-raising campaign, raised twice as much money from twice as many alumni as they had before.

Understanding the importance of their work – the “why” – apparently motivated them to get better results.  Put another way, as I like to say:  A salesperson tells, a good salesperson explains and a great salesperson demonstrates.

I’ll go so far as to proclaim that the most important question you can train your employees to ask is “why?”  Does that send shivers up your spine?  Let me explain.

Why conventional wisdom is backwards

When an employee asks why the company does things a certain way, and you can explain the logical reason, then the employee knows what she's doing is valid.  But if you can’t begin to hazard a guess beyond the “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” reply, your employee must reconsider her motivation.   If you don't know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you need to thank the employee who gave you the wake-up call.

Same goes for training.  When I listen to a mentor describe the most effective way to sell an envelope, or the best approach for a hot prospect, or even our preferred method of answering the phone, I’m expecting to hear not only the “how” but also the “why.”

The conventional wisdom has been that bosses manage and employees do what they’re told.  We’ve learned that thinking is upside down.  The people who are “doing” often bring better ideas forward because they challenged traditional practices. 

Innovation is not the exclusive domain of leadership.  Pay attention to those employees who respectfully ask why. They are demonstrating an interest in their jobs and exhibiting a curiosity that could eventually translate into leadership ability.  Encourage them to offer their suggestions and give their ideas serious consideration.  They may be the brave ones who reach for the bananas!

Mackay’s Moral:  To quote educator Diane Ravitch:  “The person who knows ‘how’ will always have a job.  The person who knows ‘why’ will always be his boss.”