When is it unhelpful to ask ?why??

And what you can ask instead

By now I?m sure you?re familiar with leadership expert, Simon Sinek, and his popular TED Talk about how great leaders inspire action. Simon talks about the golden circle with WHY being at the very centre. He says people don?t buy the ?what? or the ?how?, they buy the ?why?. It?s a brilliantly simple way of understanding what influences the decisions we make and how motivated we feel about certain things.

Like many leaders, I have adopted the ?why? question to understand what?s important to my clients. To help them gain clarity in their direction and set a vision and goals for the future. But asking ?why? isn?t always the best question.

One of my clients, the owner of a fast-growing business, was feeling frustrated with his staff being late to work each morning. He couldn?t understand why their behaviour continued despite repeated conversations about getting to work on time. When I asked him to talk me through the conversation he said he would ask his staff ?why were you late??

His staff would respond quickly with something like ?traffic was terrible?, ?my wife forgot to set the alarm? or ?I couldn?t get the kids in the car?. All valid reasons and all focused on the staff member justifying and reinforcing their behaviour. In this type of conversation asking ?why? actually prevented the staff member from seeing things from a different perspective and considering the impact of their actions on the people around them and the performance of the business.

To get his staff to take responsibility for their punctuality my client had to change the way he was asking his questions. Instead of asking ?why were you late?? he asked the following questions to open up the conversation and get his staff to come to their own conclusion on the impacts of their tardiness:

?I notice you were late this morning, what happened??

?What might be the impact of you being late?? And then continue to ask ?what else? until they have an exhausted list of potential impacts.

?How might you do things differently to ensure you get to work on time?? Again, ask ?what else? until they have an exhausted list of potential impacts.

?When will you commit to making this change??

?Where will you make this change??

?Who might be able to support you through this change??

And the final question is this ?do you need any support from me??


This is the perfect initial conversation to start having accountability conversations with your staff and, if done correctly, will change behaviour immediately.

Need help? Give me a call.


Shelley Flett is a passionate leader with a keen focus on creating efficient and dynamic team environments through adaptable leadership. She is a Leadership Coach, Trainer, Facilitator, Mentor and Speaker who ignites vision and purpose in those she works with.

If you?d like to know more about how she can support you and your business drop her an email shelley@shelleyflett.com.


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