Branding Leadership

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

by Brenda Bence, MBA, CSP, CSPGlobal

Asking 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:


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?”

When 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.”

*This article is an excerpt from Brenda Bence’s book, Would YOU Want to Work for YOU™?  How to Build an Executive Leadership Brand that Inspires Loyalty and Drives Employee Performance

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