One of the most difficult questions for any leader of any organization to answer is, “Why?”
There is something about the word that, unless all-too-perfectly phrased, with just the right dollop of inquisition, can come off as everything from impatient, entitled, bored, uneducated, and all the rest.
Funny enough, it’s these very same traits Millennials and the younger workforce are accused of on a regular basis—and, for the most part, are the result of this very question: “Why?”
But this is actually the question any great leader would hope for, especially from their young talent. The question “Why?” shows inquisition, interest, or even misunderstanding worth questioning. If someone is asking for further clarification, sure, it is reflective of where they are and their knowledge base, but it is also reflective of the individual giving directions (and how well they are communicating the task or message).
On some level it’s the very question these same leaders rack their brains with on a regular basis. It just feels odd, to them, coming from someone twenty years younger.
Where a lot of leaders go wrong is they actually hope to never have to face this dreaded question, “Why?” In fact, the question itself almost implies failure. If someone doesn’t understand, or if they are able to poke holes in the direction being given, that vulnerability isn’t seen as positive—it’s seen as negative. And truthfully, then it’s not really just the young talent that suffers the consequences, but the company. A leader needs to see this question and anything it reveals in the process as an opportunity to learn and adjust, not an inconvenience.
The best leaders welcome this sort of feedback—and even if they don’t welcome it, they are able to address it in a way that makes the person asking feel heard, understood, and more knowledgeable.
Much of the debate surrounding the Millennial generation comes down to this golden question. Millennials ask “Why?” not out of impatience or aggravation, but usually because they either require deeper understanding or they have an idea for how to do things better. Of course, this can be intimidating to older business leaders and those who do not handle or welcome change well. But truly, on some level it’s the very question these same leaders rack their brains with on a regular basis. It just feels odd, to them, coming from someone twenty years younger.
But this is the question of change. All great innovation starts with “Why?” In fact, another article I wrote along this vein was a response article to famed author Simon Sinek, the writer of the must-read business book Start With Why. And so I found it ironic that the very question Sinek was urging the world’s great leaders to start with, was the very question he himself jokingly mocked young talent for asking 8 months into their first job.
If you want to create anything of value, you have to start with “Why?” And you have to be open to whomever brings that question to the table: Millennial, Baby Boomer, Gen X, or the Gen Z intern sitting in the corner. It’s the question that’s important, not the age of the messenger. When that is respected, great things happen. And when it’s not, your culture, your work, and your business ultimately suffers.