Any effective team leader will inevitably run into the word "why." Our desire to know why seems deeply rooted.
I witnessed part of a conversation at Safeway last Saturday that reminded me of our innate desire to understand. You’ve probably heard conversations just like this and maybe even participated in your fair share of them.
Behavior An Effective Team Leader Should Emulate
It started with a 30-something mom saying to her daughter, “Okay, now let’s go get some yogurt for you.”
And the little girl replied, “Why?”
“Because you like yogurt,” answered Mom, with no hint of impatience even though she surely knew where this was going next.
“Why, Mommy?” came immediately, as if scripted. I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of my own children at this age and stage.
“Why do you like yogurt? Because it’s so good for you and it tastes yummy, too.” (What a good Mom!)
I heard the third why, but I didn’t get to hear the answer because there was a traffic jam, caused in part by the great sale on Mrs. Butterworth’s.
"Because" Can Hinder an Effective Team Leader
The conversation has been sticking with me because the mom was taking time to explain even though the answers weren’t essential. She could have said, “Just because.” She could have said, “Because I said so.” Or she could have said, “Because that’s what we always do.” Sadly, like many parents do, she could have said nothing at all and showed her irritation at yet another string of questions.
Instead, this mom understood that “Why?” was an invitation and that the words that she would put after “because” could make a difference in her daughter’s life. The same is true for all of us, in every relationship we have.
You Can't Be an Effective Team Leader if "Why" Bothers You
Unfortunately, past the age of five or so, we start taking offense when people ask us why. We get defensive and respond as if they are questioning our decisions or judgment. Sometimes, they are (but not always). Why becomes a trigger word. So we have to use it carefully.
We can’t control when others use the word “why,” but we can control what we put after our “because.” When we do, we have an opportunity to change relationships, to support people, and to position ourselves as leaders.
An Effective Team Leader Looks for "Because" Opportunities
The three ways that I see “because” opportunities get missed are:
1) Just because. This response makes us seem uninformed, unwilling to share information and/or dismissive of the person asking why. By shutting down the conversation, you miss an opportunity to teach, to share information, and to develop others.
2) Because I said so. This response makes us seem over-reliant on authority and insecure. People will only go along with you because you said so for a limited time. They need more. What they need most is to understand why and how this benefits them. Make it about others, not about you if you want to be truly effective.
3) Because that’s how we’ve always done it. This response makes us seem limited and limiting. If we’re not open to new ideas and occasional breaks from the routine, we can become robotic and uninspiring. When we ask others to accept a rote approach, we signal that their ideas and input is unwelcome.
Because isn’t meant to stand alone. Even when you say nothing more than “because” in response to a “why” question, the meaning goes beyond this deceptively simple word.
When we take time to explain, we dignify people and their questions. We acknowledge that they have a right to know our intentions, our desired outcomes, and our criteria for the direction we’ve chosen. We also have an opportunity to inform, educate and learn in why/because conversations.
Rather than responding with reflexive defensiveness, be more mindful of your because statements.
Next Steps to Becoming an Effective Team Leader
Deb Calvert is a certified Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker, Certified Master with The Leadership Challenge®and Trainer. She is the founder of People First Productivity Solutions, building organizational strength by putting people first since 2006.
Editor's note: This blog was originally published September 2016 and has been recently updated.