This article was inspired by my daughter who came home from work one day very upset. She is a manager for one of those donut/coffee shop chains and has worked at a local store for almost three years. All of a sudden, her boss, who was a regional manager, scheduled my daughter to work at a different store. She politely told him she would prefer to stay at her store and not be sent to another store, even for a day. Her store was familiar, she knew where things were, and her team respected her. But since he really needed her for this one time, she agreed.
She did not like other stores; the setup was always different, and some the employees treated her poorly. She is 19, just started college, and very small for her age, so the workers at this other location just did not see her as the boss.
After the second time this happened, she decided to go in and have a heart-to-heart talk with her boss. I reminded her to be respectful while she was voicing her dissatisfaction and be polite when demanding to not be assigned to that store. When she came home, I asked her how the conversation with her boss went. She smiled and said, “He told me I was the only manager he could trust to work at that location.” It was a location that was struggling with employees, including managers, and he felt she could handle it. Her boss also told her he was planning to promote her to manager IV the following week because she did so well as a leader.
Why Tell Why?
Once my daughter knew the reasoning for being assigned to another store, her attitude changed. She felt important, respected, and valued, and she had no problem going to other stores. If only her boss would have told her beforehand, she would not have been so apprehensive and upset.
Telling people the why is important no matter where you are or what the situation is. It can be at work, at home, anywhere. Even what you might consider a reasonable, straightforward request may not be as obvious to others. Often you are telling them the “what” and either confusing it with the why or assuming they will figure it out. I mean come on, can’t you all just know why we are doing this?
When my son was in Boy Scouts, I was the Scoutmaster. For each rank advancement, a scout had to meet with me before going in front of a group of adults for a Board of Review. The Board of Review was where they proved to the panel they were worthy of the next rank. So, when they met with me, the first thing I would tell them was never let them ask you why. When they ask you a question, give them your answer and then tell them the why. This shows people you are not only prepared for advancement, but you understand what you have learned.
Why Is Important
What I was trying to teach the Scouts was the importance of communication. Never assume the answer you give or the task you assign is totally understood by the person you are communicating with. When you do not tell people the why, you leave them no other option than to fill in the rest of the story themselves. Humans are a curious species and have always wanted to know the why. In my daughter’s case, she thought she was being punished for something she was not aware of. Think about it, she got called in to meet with the big boss and got sent to a bad store without any explanation. What was she supposed to think? Her boss just did not think to tell her why; he assumed she knew.
Let me share with you a good example of assuming people knew the why where I work. I am writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and we recently had to let some of our staff go because of financial reasons. Our university president had been communicating for months that we were concerned about the fall semester. Our enrollment is based on a large number of international students. Our projected enrollment for the upcoming fall semester was falling fast; something we had never experienced before. At the time we let people go, we were anticipating a nine-figure deficit to our operational budget.
The day we announced the terminations, people in my department were stunned. We are a cost recovery group, so people immediately questioned our pricing model, our budget, and our financing in general. They wanted to know what the decision factors were for those terminated. Who got to decide which employees got let go? What seemed an obvious decision by the leadership team was somewhat a mystery to the rest of the department. They wanted to know how the work was going to get done without these people. More importantly they wanted to know if they were next.
When I mentor people or teach workshops, I often talk about transparency. It is so important to be as transparent as you can whenever you can. Telling people as much as you can, as soon as possible, has always been my mantra. Now I know leadership cannot always be totally transparent with every situation, but try to be as forthcoming with information as possible.
In the situation above, our leadership team decided to wait two days after people were terminated to have an all hands meeting to address the teams. Being one of the managers involved, I urged my bosses to meet with everyone as soon as possible. Instead they decided to wait a few days hoping the anxiety and frustration would subside. Of course, it didn’t; it got worse. People were speculating, going from scared to angry.
People appreciate you being honest with them. This may sound obvious and you might have thought, “duh” when you read that sentence. But trust me, it needs to be said again, people appreciate you being honest with them. This is especially true when you do not have an answer to one of their questions or concerns. Be honest and tell them you don’t know, you didn’t think of that, and that you will get back to them. And make sure you do.
Often in situations like this, managers tend to sound like politicians and talk around the answers. And it is not always because they can’t tell people the real reason for their decisions. In those situations, I recommend being honest and saying you can’t be that transparent right now. No, what I am talking about is when you don’t have an answer but don’t want people to know that. Trust me, if you start talking like a politician, people will react like you are. They lose faith in you, they start to not trust you, and your credibility will take a hit. If you think letting people know you do not have the answer is a sign of weakness, think again. People can see right through that and know you are not forthcoming if not outright lying.
Being honest with people has always been my best policy. In fact, in this situation, my boss told everyone this was it, no more layoffs in our area since we made our cuts. When my team questioned me about that statement, I told them that was our plan. I also told them there is never a guarantee this would not happen again. I explained to them that if the numbers got worse, then it may have to happen again, but it was not our intention. I did not want them thinking we were rock solid in a time where everything was upside down and uncertain.
So Long and Thanks for All the Whys
Sorry, I was thinking of my childhood favorite book series and that title just stuck in my head. Yes, I am telling you the why since it did not make sense otherwise.
People need to know the purpose; they need to know the why. Maybe they want to know the “why me” or “why now” or “why this or that.” Without knowing the why, they are not always as motivated as you might want them to be.
People need to know the purpose; they need to know the why.
And remember don’t let them ask you why; make that part of your communication from the beginning.
Thomas Wilk is an IT manager at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has become a performance improvement leader, helping employees find their way along their career path. As a mentor to managers, he helps them develop leadership skills so they can better engage with their staff. Tom has a bachelor’s degree in Information Science and is currently working towards a master’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in the Public Management program. To see more from Tom, visit
his YouTube channel , and follow him on Twitter @spiller150.