What Your Employees Have in Common with 4-Year-Olds

It was super annoying when we did it as kids. Our dads, if they had any hair remaining, probably wanted to tear it out. Our moms were exasperated, even wondering to themselves in darker moments why they succumbed to that sparkle in your daddy’s eye a few years before. Eventually, it would culminate with one or both parents exclaiming with a mix of frustration and desperation, “Because!

The question of why has been around for a while. Philosophers have grappled with it for centuries and centuries, and barely-out-of-diapers kiddos seem to have an insatiable desire for an answer to the question as well. We ask them to do something. Why? Well, because I asked you to. But why? If you’re hearing a child’s voice in your head right now, you’re not crazy–you’re probably just a parent.

And here’s the thing: People’s desire to know why doesn’t go away when they get older and, say, work in your organization.

Ideally, the answer to the why question drives what your organization and its employees do. Why is like that point on the horizon that your organization fixes its collective sight on as it continues on its journey.

The trouble is that too many organizations don’t have great answers for the why question. The answer to that question is what provides context and meaning for what you and the rest of your organization does every day, so it’s imperative that you–and the rest of your team–know the answer.

Take for example an organization whose purpose, simply stated, is to “[Work] with people and communities to help them thrive and prosper.” Even a casual observer can see that this organization is very obviously guided by their answer to the why question; and their city is better off for them being there. Their corporate social responsibility has evolved over time to the point that it’s more than a program–it’s the lifestyle of their employees and an integral and integrated part of their organizational culture. They constantly volunteer in their community. They invest significant amounts of money into developing their community, serving the under-served, and in short, doing exactly what their answer to the why question says–helping their community, and the people within it, thrive and prosper. The specific line of business they’re in is but a vehicle to help them accomplish the why. That organization? It’s Vancity, a Canadian credit union. They’re in the financial services biz, but that’s not their why. It’s a means to an end.

So what about your organization? What’s your answer to the why question? Do your employees know the answer? Better yet, do they see the organization living out the answer every day? If an organization really gets it, and they’ve answered the why question well, the why subsequently informs the what, when, where, and how of the organization as well.

14 comments

  1. It’s often said that children start out as question marks – by the age of 8 they are full stops.

    In a world where many of our basic needs are met, many older people want to know the answer to the why question before they commit time / energy / money to an enterprise.

    Great post Matt

    Keep on rockin’ – don’t ask why :-)

    • Matt Monge says:

      Appreciate the kind words, and of course you’re right–the question of “why” doesn’t go away.

    • Peter, I love that first sentence:) I have a saying: “If you don’t know the ‘why’, the ‘how’ doesn’t matter.”

      Many times when I’m working with a client, they’re on a gerbil wheel: busy but not productive, not pausing long enough to investigate the reason “why” they’re doing what they’re doing…for what significant, beneficial difference?

      Rock on. Cheers! Kaarina

  2. Sudan Mazza says:

    My favorite article this week among all I have read Matt. Love the title and where you took it. Positional power is weakening in the hearts and minds if so many. Influence is the only sustainable path to leadership effectiveness and the match between the why of a leader and anyone who follows is essential to influence taking hold and bringing forth a partnership pursuing that why.

    • Matt Monge says:

      Thanks, Susan. Really appreciate the kind words. Positional power can often have a pretty damaging impact. It’s legit and positive influence, as you said, that is more likely to produce positive outcomes.

      Thanks again for the comment, and thanks for stopping by the site!

  3. AJ Borowsky says:

    Matt,

    As I said on twitter this post came at the right time for me. All day I was frustrated by delays and problems with a business deal. After reading this I immediately changed focus and began writing a mission statement for the company. A few words were enough to invigorate me.

    Thanks.

  4. What a wonderful post. You are right of course that the why question never goes away but that teams don’t feel able to ask it. Maybe because they feel like a four year old when they do! I’m convinced that teams are transformed when they have a full understanding of all the why questions they have. Taking time to understand which whys they have can turn a sluggish team into a great one.

  5. sreeni says:

    What a great post Matt. Your posts are interesting as usual. Thanks a lot

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