When I was 16, I told my father I wanted to be a vegetarian.
“That’s great!” he said. He jumped up from the couch, went to his file cabinet, and pulled out old magazine articles and copies of nutrition guidelines. You see, my father was a vegetarian. The articles he gave me discussed how to balance amino acids and other nutrients. I studied those articles and got started, and I was a strict practicing vegetarian.
For three days.
So, you can imagine my reaction when, decades later, our 16-year-old daughter came to my wife and I and said, “Hey guys, I want to be a vegetarian!”
I explained to her that India was the cradle of excellent vegetarian cooking and that the very word came from an Indian word meaning “lousy hunter.” (Well, that’s what Andy Rooney said!)
Despite my fatherly wisdom (or perhaps because of it?) our daughter went on with her plan. And for several years now, she has not eaten meat.
The foundation of change
What do you suppose was the difference between my short-lived experiment and my daughter’s lasting lifestyle change?
Let’s start with me. Why do you think I wanted to be a vegetarian? You might think it was because I wanted to be like my father. Nope. I’m not proud, but the simple truth is that in my warped adolescent brain, I figured that being a vegetarian would somehow help me get a date.
Now contrast my shallow motivations with my daughter’s reasons. She wanted to live a more sustainable, less impactful lifestyle, didn’t want to inflict harm on other sentient creatures, and wanted a healthier diet.
The difference in our behavior came down to one thing: our reasons why. Her “whys” were deep, compelling, and lasting. Mine were shallow and short-lived.
Now think about the work you ask of your team. The work you just thought about — that’s their “what”: the reports, the phone calls, the meetings, the manufacturing, the planning, the calculations, all the “stuff” we do.
The critical leadership question
In fact, this question is so vital, so full of life, energy, and potential that I can confidently say it is the most important question you can ever answer for your team. The question is simply: “Why?”
This isn’t a question about great metaphysical or philosophical dilemmas. It’s about the most practical question every team member needs to be able to answer. Simply put: Why are they doing what they’re doing? Your job as a leader is to connect the “what” to the “why.”
If you’ve ever seen the classic 1967 movie “Cool Hand Luke,” where Paul Newman’s character serves time in a prison chain gang, you’ll remember the ditch scene.
The jailers force Luke to repeatedly dig and refill the same ditch. The meaningless labor is designed to break his spirit. When you don’t connect the “what” to the “why,” you condemn your team to soulless drudgery.
Is your staff doing work disconnected from real meaning or purpose? If so, there are two possible reasons: (1) your staff don’t understand the “why” behind the work, or (2) there is no legitimate “why.”
“Whats” without “whys” are a waste. They waste time. They waste energy. They waste your people. When you say, “I believe this matters and here’s why…” you provide clarity, hope, and purpose, but you also create an opportunity for your belief to be challenged.
This is a good thing!
Every single task performed by every single member of your team should somehow serve the mission of your organization. If it does not, it needs to be challenged, reexamined, and a better way found — or the task should simply be eliminated.
Otherwise, you’ve sentenced your team to do work meant to break their spirit!
Double your team’s productivity
You can take just five minutes per month and double your team’s productivity by simply asking them to think about various “whats” and asking, “Why do we do these things?” Don’t treat this activity as a quiz. Treat it as a mutual exploration — a chance for all of you to discover together why something matters.
In just five minutes, you will discover a renewed sense of purpose, people sit up taller, smile and have pride in what they’re doing. Sometimes participants in this activity even shed tears as they rediscover the meaning in their work.
Are you nervous?
If you don’t like the answers you discover, that’s OK. If your “why” is all about you (e.g., “I’m doing this for more money, power, or prestige”), you are right to be concerned.
People aren’t stupid. When it’s all about you, they’ll know it, and you can expect them to only do what they have to do. People work best when their work has meaning (and I’m sorry, but your personal success isn’t meaningful to your team).
If you examine your big “why” and the answers are shallow, vapid, and uninspiring, I applaud you for having the courage to go there.
Now take the next step: Where can you find meaning? Why is the work important? How does it contribute to a bigger picture? If it does not, can you take steps to eliminate those tasks?
When you connect “whats” to “whys,” you tap into natural energy and vastly increase your team’s productivity. Leave us a comment and let us know how you make sure every task has purpose and meaning behind it.
Be the leader you want your boss to be!
David M. Dye works with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done. He is the author of “The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say,” is president of Trailblaze Inc, tweets from @davidmdye, and welcomes your LinkedIn invitation.