Whether you’re managing a team of employees or you’re on your own, remember that although what you do and how you do it are important, it’s the “why” that provides real motivation to succeed.

An experiment conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business demonstrates the power of “why.”  At a university call center where employees phone alumni to solicit contributions to scholarship funds, the staff was randomly divided into three groups:  The first group read stories written by former call center employees about the benefits of the job (such as improved communication and sales skills).  The second group shared accounts from former students about how their scholarships helped them with their education, careers and lives.  The third, a control group, read nothing, just explained the purpose of the call and asked for a contribution.

After a month, the researchers found that the first group and the third group raised roughly the same amount of money from alumni after the experiment began as before.  But callers in the second group, who had related the stories about the impact of the scholarships students received from the fund-raising campaign, raised twice as much money from twice as many alumni as they had before.

Understanding the importance of their work – the “why” – apparently motivated them to get better results.  Put another way, as I like to say:  A salesperson tells, a good salesperson explains and a great salesperson demonstrates.

I’ll go so far as to proclaim that the most important question you can train your employees to ask is “why?”  Does that send shivers up your spine?  Let me explain.

When an employee asks why we do things a certain way, and the manager can explain the logical reason, then we know what we are doing is valid.  But if that manager can’t begin to hazard a guess beyond the “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” reply, we must reconsider our motivation.   If the boss doesn’t really know why we’re doing what we’re doing, it’s time to thank the employee who gave us the wake-up call.

Same goes for training.  When I listen to a mentor describe the most effective way to sell an envelope, or the best approach for a hot prospect, or even our preferred method of answering the phone, I’m expecting to hear not only the “how” but also the “why.”

There’s an old story about a group of monkeys which was placed in a cage with a bunch of bananas hanging overhead.  Every time a monkey tried to climb up and grab a banana, it got drenched with cold water.  Eventually the monkeys caught on, and they quit climbing up after the fruit.

But then, the monkeys were replaced one by one.  As the new monkeys tried to climb up after the bananas, the older monkeys would prevent them from climbing.  In time, all the original monkeys were replaced.  And amazingly, none of the newer group ever tried to climb up to the bananas, even though none of them had ever been splashed with the cold water.

I know that monkeys can’t ask why the way humans can, but the story illustrates how easily followers can fall into the trap of doing things the same way without any real justification. The Marine Corps is said to use this story to teach new officers the value of learning the reason behind policies and decisions.  By asking “why are we doing this?” they can help prevent people from blindly performing tasks repeatedly when the reason behind them has long since vanished.

The conventional wisdom has been that bosses manage and employees do what they’re told.  We’ve learned that thinking is upside down.  The people who are “doing” are often bringing better ideas forward because they challenged traditional practices.

Innovation is not the exclusive domain of corporate leadership.  Pay attention to those employees who respectfully ask why – they are demonstrating an interest in their jobs and exhibiting a curiosity that could eventually translate into leadership ability.  Encourage them to offer their suggestions and give their ideas serious consideration.  They may be the brave ones who reach for the bananas!

Consider the wisdom of author and educator Diane Ravitch:  “The person who knows ‘how’ will always have a job.  The person who knows ‘why’ will always be his boss.”


Mackay’s Moral:  It’s not enough to know how to do things – you must know why you do them. 

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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