Take time to explain “why”

U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Biggs, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander's commentary.

Col. Todd L. Osgood, 379th Expeditionary Medical Group commander's commentary.

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar --

AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar - The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Good communication is a key element of successful organizations. As leaders, managers, or supervisors, we're sometimes so focused on communicating the "what" or the "how" that we fail to explain why the work someone is doing is so important. 
 

Other times, we make decisions that impact work priorities or cause significant change, but don't explain why.

 

There are many reasons why leaders don't explain why. Explaining why takes time, and some leaders may not think that explaining why is important. Sometimes, leaders assume others understand the why, whether it is how day-to-day tasks relate to the larger mission or a decision the leader has made that causes significant change to the status-quo. Whatever the reason, it's worth taking the time to explain "why."

 

For those who have toddlers, you may notice  early in life toddlers begin to ask "why" a lot. No matter how trivial the task, children want to know why you're doing something or why they should do something they've been asked to do. If you don't do a very good job explaining to them why they should do something, they will usually respond with an emphatic no! As children grow older, their intrigue with their surroundings grows, and they ask "why" often. As adults, our desire to know "why" continues, but we're often reluctant to ask. Or, if we know "why," we often don't take time to explain "why" to others.

 

About a decade ago, I was very fortunate to serve with a commander who ensured his squadron members understood why each person's job was important, and how each person's role was vital to the unit, base, and Air Force. It provided each of us with a sense of purpose.

 

Other times, the commander would make a decision that would cause significant disruption to the status quo. He often met with us in small groups or individually to explain why he made certain decisions. Those that served under his command benefited in several ways. First, by the commander explaining how he reached a certain decision, he provided us with valuable insight into his decision making process. It was as if he was preparing us to fill his shoes one day. Next, by taking time to explain why, we realized that he cared about us, not just the mission. Finally, by explaining why, even if we didn't agree or like the decision, we could better understand his perspective.


There's more to effective communication than explaining the "what" and the "how." Explaining the "why" might take more effort, but it can pay big dividends to those you supervise. It can more clearly explain how their role in the organization makes a difference, and offer a greater sense of purpose. As a mentoring tool, it can help folks develop their own decision-making skills to use as their breadth and depth of responsibility grows. When practical, try it out if you haven't already. You may be surprised how many will appreciate it.