Answering the Why


While consulting with a Fortune 500 consumer products company, my client and colleagues and I conducted internal and external research as the basis for an internal communication plan. As we talked with employees in focus groups, one theme kept reappearing. Employees didn’t just want to know where the company was headed and what decisions management was making. They also wanted to know why.

Answering the why is probably one of the most overlooked — and one of the most powerful — aspects of employee communication.

We might do a great job of communicating strategic messages on behalf of business leaders. These might include new products the company is launching or new markets it’s entering, investments the company is making and policies that are changing.

We might do an even better job of telling compelling stories about a team’s innovative approach to solving a problem, an employee’s passion for her job or the unique culture at one of the company’s plants.

These might make for interesting content. Employees might enjoy reading these stories on the intranet or hearing the CEO talk about them in town hall meetings. Leaders might believe they’re doing their part to create an environment of open, transparent communication. And they might be right.

But ask employees what’s missing from the information they receive about the business and often they’ll say they want to know the reasons behind company strategy, leaders’ decisions and changes in company policy and procedures.

Why is the why so important? Because it strengthens employee engagement. Sharing lots of information about the business is a good start toward engaging employees, but you can knock the ball out of the park when you start to talk about why. It helps employees put the pieces of the puzzle together and to make sense of the organization’s complexities. It helps them establish “line of sight” between what they do and what the business is trying to do. It helps them understand the reasons for business decisions, even if they don’t like those reasons.

Why is the company acquiring this seemingly unrelated business? Because it provides an entry point into an adjacent market.

Why does the company have such a stringent social media policy? Because it has a strategy when it comes to engaging with consumers and it wants to speak with one voice.

Why is the company laying off 100 people at this plant? Because bringing its cost structure in line with competitors is in the company’s long-term best interest.

Many business leaders forget that employees are investors, too. Even if they don’t invest their money in company stock, they do invest their time, energy and skills in the enterprise. Business leaders would never communicate a major business decision to investors without explaining why they made that decision — at least, if they want investors to continue investing. The same is true of employees. If you want them to continue investing their discretionary effort in your company, answering the why is essential.

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4 Responses

  1. This is great stuff, Robert. I will definitely share this with my bizcom students. Sadly, most employees appear to have stopped expecting companies to tell them the WHY behind what they do. As you write, this leads to dis-empowered and cynical employees.

    Telling = Drill Sergeant
    Telling + Explaining = Leader

    • Thanks, McClain. I agree that most employees’ expectations have been lowered around having the “why” explained to them, but I also believe some companies are experiencing a backlash in the form of disengagement and even disenfranchisement. In September I blogged about it. A 2010 Martiz Research poll found that only 10 percent of employees trust management to make the right decisions in difficult times. Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study in 2010 found that during the 2008-10 financial crisis, 72 percent of U.S. companies reduced their workforces. Seven out of 10 employees say this negatively affected how they feel about their work and employers. An organization can’t expect to operate at peak performance with that kind of disengagement. It’s in business leaders’ best interests to not only keep employees informed, but to also keep them engaged — and explaining the why is a big part of doing that.

  2. Another challenge: Employees who get their “why” question answered may, or may not, trust the answer they get… And, by the time Corp Comms and the lawyers get finished finessing the language, they would be right. Thanks for the post!

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