The View from HR

For employees and managers, understanding ‘why’ at work is crucial

April 20, 2013 

Everyone wants to know why. From ages 3 to 103, asking “why?” provides us the reasons behind a request or action. A good answer helps us make good choices. A bad answer does the opposite.

Think of the exhausted parent who shouts, “Because I told you so!” That voice may get a temporary salute, but chances for real commitment are small.

The same concept holds true at work. Understanding “why” at every level of activity, leadership and decision-making may be the single most important need of employees, especially managers. Really.

At a minimum, a good answer to “why?” provides: 1) a way to make good choices when problems and opportunities arise; 2) the satisfaction of knowing your work affects others; and 3) a way to stay focused on the important things.

An employee who understands why we need a superior customer experience is much better equipped to handle the unpredictable situations that come along. Sure, a phone rep can read from a list of three dozen “typical problems and solutions,” but what does that really do for a customer? Will it give a customer the “why” they need?

Dealing with Delta

I recently responded to a survey from Delta Air Lines regarding a terrible experience during a long flight. The problem was caused by a passenger. Delta’s rep told me how they try to prevent this problem, examples of why it is so difficult to prevent and answered questions about my options as a flier next time. I did not want an insincere apology or a free drink coupon. Thankfully, this rep understood his “why.”

People want to be part of something that matters to real people. Understanding “why” provides and clarifies that connection to other humans. Without it, employees miss out on the single biggest non-cash reward available from work.

Say your company has very detailed, written processes for making a product or writing software code. Even perfect compliance with those processes leaves out the human “why.”

If the process is followed, how is the next employee or the end user positively affected? If shortcuts are taken, who handles the rework, solves the problem or apologizes to the end user for our failure? “Why” matters a lot.

Defining purpose

The most difficult “why” to define is the overall purpose of your group or organization. No, it is not to make money or widgets. Unless you can clearly define the unique reason you were created and your importance to the customer, focus and clarity in decision-making will be lost. Your purpose is an internal statement to help you create, keep, care for and feed the right things.

A landscaper’s purpose might be to “beautify the world.” Our purpose at CAI is “to provide employers the confidence needed to turn fears and opportunities into practical actions and results.”

Both statements help frame important choices and keep us on track.

“Why” is as important to your success as “what” and “how.” Start treating it with the respect it deserves.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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