Generation Y gets a lot of bad press for being a generation that wants to know WHY they have to do things at work. Their questions are seen as annoyances: why do they have to wear uniforms? Why do they have to follow certain procedures? Why does an outdated policy remain in place? Why do they have to take-out their facial piercings for a client meeting?
Some variation of “Because I said so” is not an adequate response for them – just as it wasn’t for those of us born before 1980 (even though we may have heard it a lot).
X-ers and Boomers often hated not knowing why we had to do things early in our careers. The difference is that we generally didn’t ask. Ys ask and they can find an answer (Google will tell them if you won’t). Ys are curious. Curiosity shows engagement, even if it makes the rest of us a little mental in the process.
Here’s my question for all of you who chafe at the idea of yet another newbie asking why she has to do something: do you know the answer to her question? Do you know why she has to follow certain policies? Can you explain it clearly and directly to her and to the rest of your team? Can you provide a context for why these policies exist and describe how following them benefits her and your customers? If you don’t know why, how can you find-out? And, finally: have you stopped asking questions? If so, WHY?
For those of you who really want to hold on to the “in my day, we weren’t allowed to ask why; we did as we were told and liked it!” argument, I admire your dedication to the past, but want to tell you that it might not be an accurate memory.
For this, I give you Monro Leaf as a reference. Monro Leaf wrote the beloved children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. He also wrote a series of books for children about good manners, heath and grammar. My personal favorite in the series is How to Behave and WHY. It was first published in 1946, so if you are a Boomer you likely read it as a kid, and if you are an X-er, you probably at least recognize the cover. Good behavior is clearly explained in this book – as is WHY it’s important.
What I like most about this title is that the WHY is included. Telling someone why something is important is a sign of respect – respect for the individual and for the activity he or she is being asked to do. Think about the last time someone told you to do something without an explanation – how did it feel?
Explaining why things are important is what we do when we sincerely want people to understand something. We let them know the context of what we want them to do, what is required, how it needs to be done and how it will help accomplish a goal if done well.
If we don’t know the answers to why things at work are the way they are, then we need to find out. That’s true for entry level supervisors, CEOs and every manager in between. It is our responsibility to learn and share information, because if we really want to be able to tell people that the facial piercings must be removed for client meetings, “because I said so” is totally lame – we can do better.
 Leaf, M. (1946). How to behave and why. New York: Universe