A few years ago, I spoke at a HR conference where the legendary speaker Simon Sinek (of TED Talk fame and author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last) joined us to talk about how the “Power of WHY” can change the way HR professionals approach their job and the projects they work on.
Simon’s was one of the first TED talks I ever watched and it is consistently in the Top 10 best TED talks (or leadership talks in general). He speaks passionately and wisely of the importance of understanding purpose – the reasons why we do what we do, and how that not only motivates us but can help us prioritise and determine what to actually spend our time on.
I’ve spoken and written about similar themes in my own presentations and posts, because purpose, vision and values all play a critical part in any change, retention or recognition strategy. After all, without understanding what it is a business is working towards, or where I fit in the puzzle, how do I know what behaviours should be recognised and rewarded?
Why successful projects ask this question first
When I first heard Sinek’s talk, I was pretty humbled; I was just about to kick off a massive change program in an organisation with over 300 IT professionals. Reporting lines, job descriptions and team structures were all about to change to align the business with a new strategy. I knew we had a long journey ahead, and being reminded of the “why” was critical for the success of the change, as well as ongoing morale.
If it is second nature for humans to ask, “why?”, why do often skirt this question when it comes to business and our everyday work? Why don’t we expect our employees to ask themselves and ask their leaders WHY that task is so urgent, or WHY the targets have changed, or WHY we’re prioritising this project over another? And when they do ask, why are so few leaders prepared to answer that question?
When I coach people leaders on communication in the workplace, I tell them it takes at least THREE attempts before people really start understanding a message. That’s THREE times, minimum.
Yet so many teams forget to talk about the “why”. They forget to remind people during the journey. And they would prefer people to just get off the bus instead of answering the question “where are we going?” and “why?”. This light-touch approach makes change — no matter how big or small — an uphill battle. Try introducing a new piece of software to a group of paper-based administrators without telling them why it’s happening, and without communicating the “what’s in it for me?”. No matter how much more efficient that software will make them, and how much easier it might make their job, they’ll resist.
Try growing a team, or motivating an individual to perform without communicating why the targets have been set or the impact that specific task will make to the business as a whole. Unless every person in your team is self-motivated and conscientious (a rare trait!), chances are you won’t get very far.
Without the “why”, there is no reason to keep going when it gets hard
I’ve learnt that understanding my key drivers – and often, having visual reminders around me – help me and other professionals working in this space to keep you focused and driven, even when project progress or individual energy stalls. It makes sense that to maintain motivation for long-term projects (like cultural change!), we should take on the advice from Steven Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – begin with the end in mind.
If we fail to articulate the “why” of any journey or change project, we won’t know what our targets are. And without targets, we run the risk of trying to achieve everything at once (which, let’s be honest, often leads to you achieving nothing).
So, if you’re about to embark on a new project, stop and ask yourself, why am I doing this? What does “success” really look like? Get specific about your drivers and targets. The clearer your picture is, the better your chances are of designing something that suits those goals.
Need a hand articulating the “why” behind your employee recognition strategy? Start with our comprehensive guide to Building and Budgeting Your Employee Recognition Program.