Why: 3 Reasons Successful Leaders Share Their Rationale

When I was a kid I hated chores. My parents asked me to do all sorts of things I detested: eat my vegetables, clean my room, come inside before dark. I simply didn’t understand. Later, I came to learn that each direction was backed by a wisdom-laden rationale. Once I understood (and agreed with) my parent’s rationale, I stopped asking, “Why?” at every instance. How does this relate to how you lead your team?

An innate desire to understand

No one likes to hear the phrase, “Because I said so.” Something in us finds it hard to blindly follow orders. Often we resent the one who made the command. This is because we seek to clarify and to understand why we do what we do.

I’m reminded of a story I’ve heard multiple times, told by Zig Ziglar in See You at the Top. A wife is in the kitchen cooking the Christmas ham. As her husband walks in she is cutting the end off the ham. Being curious, he asked her why she did that. In her honesty, she explained, “I cut off the end of the ham because that’s how her mother always did it.” The husband says, “she’s in the other room, let’s ask her why.” The mother-in-law relays to the husband that she cut off the ends of the ham because her mother always cut off the ends of the ham.”

Wanting to get to the bottom of this three generation mystery, the husband calls grandma. On the phone, “Grandma, why did you always cut off the ends of the ham before cooking it?” Grandma replied, “I cut off the ends of the ham because my roasting pan was too small.”

Mystery solved. There was no magic to it at all. Good ham went unenjoyed for years simply because the chefs were missing the rationale.

Why leaders should explain why

Leaders often find explaining themselves an unnecessary hassle. They can become frustrated when others question their positions or decisions.

However, leaders who regularly provide their team members with the rationale that led them to a given conclusion encounter less resistance. Why is that?

In fact, leaders who provide rationales find that, when they do, their teams are more motivated to carry out their individual roles to accomplish the task or project. How does explaining your rationale do that?

Here are 3 reasons sharing your rationale (your why) with your team boosts their motivation.

1. Communicates Purpose

When team members know why things are done a certain way they are compelled to follow your lead. When employees simply comply, it’s often because they lack rationale. They are just being told what to do.

Daniel Pink, author of Drive, wrote that without a stated rationale team members will do one of two things: 1) comply or 2) defy. The first inhibits employee engagement; the second, undermines authority. Neither is a desirable quality great leaders aim for.

2. Connects Individuals with the Bigger Picture

We all want to know that our jobs or contributions are making a difference. Abraham Maslow titled this our need for transcendence – contributing to the betterment of our fellow man.

Imagine if an automotive assembly line worker in Henry Ford’s car manufacturing plant was told to rivet two rectangular sheets of metal together. Day after day, she did this. The two sheets of metal moved to her station on a conveyor belt for hours a day to be riveted together. Monotonous. Tedious. Pointless. Putting food on her family’s table was all that kept her showing up each morning.

However, would it change her perspective to learn that her riveting helped create the fire plate in the early automobile? This fire plate protected drivers and their passengers in case of an accident and further injury should the engine ignite. Might this bit of information alter her attitude?

3. Increases Motivation 

When leaders explain their purpose and intent, team members have the opportunity to align themselves with that purpose. This is often the intent behind company mission statements. A company hopes for and encourages their employees to take personal ownership and embrace their role in carrying out the mission.

When team members identify with the stated purpose of a task or project, the individual is supplying his or her own motivation. This is called autonomous motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Keeping team members perpetually motivated is one of the biggest challenges leaders face. One way to do so is by consistently sharing your rationale. Leaders who communicate why they make decisions, prioritize projects or why a task is critical to overall success ignite ownership and a sense of purpose in their team.

Question: Ever had a leader leave you in the dark and not share his or her rationale? How did that affect your attitude, effort and motivation? Share your story the comments below.

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