Explain the Why

Let’s pick up where our last column left off. When we last left Rocky and President Obama (an old cartoon reference for you over-50 types… remember Rocky & Bullwinkle?), we were talking about the power of critical incidents as learning opportunities. At issue was whether the President and his team have forgotten to “turn around and see if anyone’s following” – a common leadership mistake (especially if you feel you’ve been given a mandate for change).

Seems to me what the President needs to do more of is “explain the why.” Explaining the why is one of the leader’s most valuable tools in the citizen or employee engagement game. Explaining the why pulls people in, creates a common understanding of the situation or crisis, and helps everyone absorb how the change relates to them. Sometimes there’s no real need to explain the why – it’s either plainly obvious why we all need to pitch in (disaster in Haiti) or the call to action is logical and produces a “of course we’re with you” type of response (creating a set of core values for the company).

But President Obama (and you, perhaps) often face more cloudy motivational issues. Here’s just a few of the topics that the administration is dealing with that could use a health dose of “why” – Afghanistan, health care, the financial system bailout, and, coming soon (gulp), probable tax increases. Given his oratory skills, it’s surprising that Obama hasn’t taken his case for each of these changes directly to the American people in plain, easy to digest language (I’ll never understand why Presidents don’t literally hold a monthly “all hands meeting” with 300 million of their closest friends to say “here’s what we accomplished this month, here’s why we worked on that, and here’s what we’re going to work on next month” – why would that be so hard?). Seems like you become President and you forget Rule # 1 of being a leader – communicate, constantly!

Jack Welch used to talk about the need for leaders to be relentless and boring – to repeat, repeat, repeat the message until it resonated, helping people make sense of what was going on, how they fit in, and why it mattered. That’s it, really – here’s what we need to do, here’s why, and here’s what it means to you. How hard is that? Yet most leaders completely under-leverage this communication trifecta – they may be relatively clear about what needs to be done, but they definitely don’t stress the why or the “what’s in it for you” nearly enough.

It’s easy to see where Obama could be explaining the why more often, but what about you? What are you trying to rally your people around that could use more explanation? Why are you asking them to change, work harder, squeeze costs, etc.? What’s that getting you (and them)? It might even be 2 or 3 layers deep – we have to do this, to get to here, which is important for achieving this goal, etc.

Start thinking more about “explaining the why” – it’s a powerful communications technique that never goes out of style. Every time (yes, every time) you communicate something, add the why; notice the difference in how the message is received. You can do this – it takes a little extra preparation, but the returns are worth it. And if you can’t figure out the why, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it (which is part of the problem with health care reform – average American’s can’t tell why Washington wants to change the status quo).

Let me leave you with this – leading is a lot like parenting, yes? You explain the why to your kids when they’re young, right (don’t touch the stove, because…)? Same thing with your employees. Help them understand why you’re asking them to do certain things… it helps them understand. Just don’t fall back on that old parenting standby (“because I said so!”) – that won’t go over too well with your team!