Remember as a kid when you asked why everything was the way it was, and every answer you received led to another “why” question?
You had a lot to learn in your youth, and you lacked the reference points needed to understand common concepts: “Why is the sky blue?” “Why can’t I touch the stove?” “Why did Grandpa leave us?”
As you grew up, you developed those needed reference points through experiences in the school of hard knocks. The questions you ask now need to match the maturity you’ve gained. As an adult, especially as a business leader, you must learn to ask “what” instead of “why”:
What does this mean for me?
What could I have done better?
What did I miss?
These are positive questions that lead to successful results. Asking “Why did this happen to me?” is much more common. But just like when you were a kid, asking “why” leads to an infinite loop of negative questions, and being filled with negativity leaves no room for possibility, opportunity, or growth.
Here’s why ‘what’ is better than ‘why.’
The business world moves fast, and asking what you learned is much more beneficial than asking why something happened. To avoid spiraling into insanity and losing control of your company, start looking at the “whats.”
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Have you heard the phrase “paralysis by analysis”? That’s what “why” questions lead to. If I make a mistake, I find myself trying to figure out why I did what I did or why things went wrong. It takes a second for me to remember that I need to figure out what happened and then take the next step: Fix the problem, and capitalize. I can ask myself all of the destructive questions later.
A good friend of mine has a startup in its second year. She’s working through a lot of issues with her company, and each time we meet, she brings “why” questions. My advice to her is that she’s too busy to ask the “whys” right now. She needs to get out there and hustle to figure out what to do to solve the problems rather than try to understand why something isn’t going her way.
Don’t get me wrong — an in-depth analysis of the reasons something went wrong can help prevent future mistakes. But simply asking why things aren’t happening the way you want will not help you figure out how to solve your problems. Execution is more valuable than anything.
Asking ‘what’ is about taking action.
Business is truly a game you must learn to master. You need metrics, numbers, outcomes, and data. Instead of asking why the analytics are what they are, ask action-oriented questions like “What’s next?”
I once had a contract with a staffing company. They were great clients and just great folks in general. But then I received an email: They were canceling their contract in 30 days.
I asked a lot of “whys”; I wasted 30 days posing questions that got me nowhere. I never regained that contract. To this day, I feel confident that if I had approached the situation with better questions (e.g., “What can I do differently?” “How can we be better?” “Will you give us another chance?”), the outcome would have been different. I got lost in thought instead of taking action.
Here are better questions than ‘why.’
Adjusting your focus toward action can be as simple as rephrasing the question with a different interrogative word:
- What can I do differently? Leaders need to be able to take responsibility for their roles in their companies, put their egos aside, and try to figure out what they can personally do to be more successful.
- How can my team learn, grow, and crush the next deal? Let them learn different positions and work on unusual assignments to test their skills and help them grow. You never know — they could be much better fits somewhere else in the organization.
- Where is the next opportunity? Are you hungry to face more challenges? Have you learned from your past mistakes, and are you ready take on new prospects? Scope out the competition, the market, and your network. Find a gap and fill it.
The truth is that “why” is the easy way out. It is the complainer’s question. Doers don’t ask “why.” They pick themselves up, lick their wounds, and charge back into the fight.
The Bottom Line
When deals are lost, take time to think through everything that went wrong, and do that after you’ve gotten over the initial upset (but before the details start to get fuzzy). If you have any “whys” to get out of your system, ask them early, and move on. If you’re going to blame anyone, blame yourself. Always ask first-person questions: “What could I have done better?” Don’t place blame, and don’t make excuses.
After you’ve done your own reflecting, sit down with your team and get their take. Guide the conversation toward solutions rather than causes. Don’t point fingers; just dig deep and look for ways to improve. That’s what the “what” is all about: being better. The “why” is about wallowing in the past.
Which question are you asking?
Become a Better Leader by Asking ‘What,’ Not ‘Why’