Why Leaders Should Explain the Why

The email read, “Can you please explain why are we doing this?”

At first, I was mortified.

I’d been working with a leadership team and had asked them to do some self reflection before our session together.  I sent the prework request by email. I didn’t hear anything until that one brave soul wrote and asked why they should do the exercise.

Then, I understood.  In my enthusiasm, I’d forgotten that my frame of reference, i.e.,:

“This is a simple exercise that will catalyze a great discussion at the LT meeting!”

…was not the same as the email recipients’ frame of reference, which might be more like:

” I have so much to do already today, please don’t ask one more thing!”

Nothing in their minds about that amazing session coming up on Friday.

I forgot to explain the why.

At my former company (Genentech), “explain the why” was prominently in the list of leadership commitments, and was one that really stuck with me.

But here’s a nuance:  the first time I heard the leadership principle “explain the why,” I thought that the leader who does not explain the why is a leader who doesn’t care, a leader who’s not thinking about their people but just doing their own stuff. 

Instead now I realize that, like me with the pre-work, a leader can also get carried away with their own enthusiasm such that they temporarily forget the difference in context between themselves and their audience.

When you’re a leader, you typically have more context than the people you are speaking to, especially at the moment you’re sharing something new.

So the “why” is especially helpful for :

  • A new request:  “I need this information in order to…”
  • Making a change:  “The reason we are doing this now is….”
  • Laying the groundwork:  “The purpose of our meeting on Friday is to…”

Explaining the why is especially important in times of change and uncertainty, which seems to describe everywhere right now.

I admit, there are many different – and sometimes conflicting – aims of communication.  We can be trying to be clear, brief, direct, connecting, inspiring…all in one email!  But my advice for effective communication usually boils down to one point: put yourself in your listeners’ shoes, and bring then along with you.

Do you have a project or a process you’re really excited about? If so, consider whether or not the people coming along with you have the whole story, or if they need a dose of the “why.”

And as always, please write and tell me what you’ve tried and learned. I love getting replies. Why? Because your experiences teach and inspire me.

Want to receive more of my tips, reflections and resources? Subscribe to “Try It!  The Scientific Leadership Newsletter” and get my content directly to your inbox!

Leave a Comment