Hans Odenthal is the HR manager at Sioux Technologies.

31 March

Don’t tell your people how they should be doing things, but why they’re tasked with doing them, says HR manager Hans Odenthal.

I doubt if Anita Meyer’s song “Why, tell me why” would have made it to the top of the charts if it had been called “How, tell me how.” And still, we mostly talk about the ‘how’ in our meetings. In meeting notes, we write down the tasks to be performed as SMART as possible. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with describing how we want things to be done. But is it really the smartest thing to do?

When having a meeting, the subject often shifts quickly from the things we want to achieve to how to get there. And that’s where the fireworks begin. Many discussions really ignite on small details, even though we already agreed on the proposed result or direction. On the other hand, we rarely speak about the ‘why,’ the reasoning or context behind the question. Weird, isn’t it? Especially if a company encourages you to take more responsibility. And you can only do that if you understand the context.

To me, taking on actual responsibility is very important. In my daily work, I try to focus as much as possible on the ‘why’ and leave the ‘how’ up to others. When I train a new colleague, I typically start by telling him what tasks he needs to do. But I also give the reasoning behind the task and explain the context and what result he should achieve. If he has other or better ways than I would have employed to achieve the same, that’s fine. Sometimes, we get into nice discussions about the context and whether it’s still valid. Sometimes we conclude that the suggested tasks aren’t even needed anymore. That’s the power of the why.

The why’s side effects are also very positive. Describing the why is much more inspiring than talking about the details of the implementation. Somebody who understands why he’s doing what he’s doing is much more involved in a project. And it’s not just a task that’s being transferred, but implicitly also the responsibility to think for oneself. This adds to work satisfaction. So, a win for all involved.

It’s not straightforward to move from how to why, however. You need task-mature people. Not only on the executing side but especially on the delegating side. The latter is probably the most difficult since it’s so much easier to tell somebody what you want him to do. I think that this is the main reason why it’s so difficult to achieve actual freedom and responsibility in one’s work. The people who should delegate often got their leading position because they excelled at performing those tasks in the past, making it too tempting to transfer the ‘how to do it’ to the next generation and forgetting to transfer the more important ‘why.’

We’ve been taught that you need to grasp the real problem behind the original customer demand. For example, you can use the 5-whys methodology for this. We all embrace this way of working when we try to build a system. I strongly suggest doing this for building an organization as well.

I recommend adding a “Why” column to the action list in meeting notes. And to answer Anita Meyer’s question in your next meeting and tell everybody why, tell them why.