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  • The Best Question a Manager can Answer: “Why?”

    Let me lay out a situation that most of those that work at almost any company are familiar with: Company management undergoes a reorganization and change is coming. The change can be vast including entire groups or functions going-away, leaving hundreds or thousands without a job or could be something slight, like people have to work on an upcoming Saturday.

    Corporate leaders are (rightfully so) worried about big things like, will this new strategy and organization structure cause the company to lose momentum? Or, will this change cause us to lose profit or become vulnerable to our competitors? Yet one thing that does not receive as much thought is how to “break the news” to all the employees. For most, it’s as cold and calculated as sending out a company announcement via email, and then letting the chips fall where they will. This lack of thought about communicating change can be disaster because (quite simply) people talk.

    When there is lack of communication

    When people talk two things happen, (1) they get distracted and no longer focus on their work, and (2) they come up with some of the most creative conclusions as to why things changed and the rationale behind the new system. Most of the time these self-crafted answers are based on wrong assumptions or are just completely rationalized and made up by someone who is ill-informed.

    In managing people, I have found that the best way to deal with change (and basically the changing of any policy or rule that is set) is to answer the question that is often disregarded by managers; the question “Why?”

    Provide a clear picture

    Managers can wrongfully think, “I’m the boss and I know why I needed to make this change. My employees just need to focus on the new way we are doing things so we can reach the new goals I set for them.” Instead, effective managers don’t just tell their people that a change has been made, but they offer rationale behind why the change was made.

    For example, a friend of mine’s company had an entire team that was focused on making products for and selling to a certain industry. One day, it was announced that the team would no longer be focused on this industry but instead would be targeting international customers. Along with the announcement, some people’s job would be eliminated and some would have to move to Europe and Asia. Unfortunately, that was the extent of the announcement. There was no why.

    Left to their own devices people spent a great deal of time and energy speculating whether the change came because of something going on in the industry (which appeared to be growing) or a new opportunity that came about internationally, and beyond. The company did not share that this industry  focus was not profitable or that the cost of paying experienced people on the team was causing the company to lose market share in other product lines because there was less money for marketing. The reasoning could have been anything, but the bottom-line is that it was not shared.

    The importance of telling them why

    The beauty about sharing why with your employees is because it allows them to move on. It’s like ripping off a band-aid. It may hurt, and they may disagree with the rationale that you used in making your decision, but at least they understand your reasoning.

    Telling the why behind a decision allows people to feel like they are important and deserve to know. Instead of de-motivating them, it allows people to focus more on their work and can even empower them to work better and smarter because they will naturally look for new ways to support your rationale for making the decision in the first place. If you talk to the team about the purpose behind a cost cutting measure you are instating, they will begin to uncover additional ways to cut costs in other areas (often times without you even asking them to). They will work smarter and in a way that is mindful of why the decision was made, while you will get better results.

    While it is important to use tact and put the right “spin” on the reasoning behind your decision, make sure to share the why with your people and not just what the change is. It can mean the difference between achieving the result that you are hoping the change would create and total failure and low morale. Remember the answer the question, “Why?” even if you aren’t directly asked.

    Aaron McDaniel is a corporate manager, entrepreneur, author, public speaker and community leader. Aaron has held numerous management roles at a Fortune 500 company, being one of the youngest ever appointed appointed Regional Vice President at the age of 27, and is the founder of multiple entrepreneurial ventures. Aaron instructed a highly rated student-led course on leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas Undergraduate School of Business and has a book, The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World: Savvy Strategies to Get In, Get Ahead, and Rise to the Top, due to be out later this year. Aaron offers advice that helps young professionals build the foundation for a successful career. 

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