Not that long ago, leaders told people what to do, and they did it. They didn’t ask many questions. When they did, most of the time, the direct answer was, “Because I’m the boss and told you to.” 

We all understand that doesn’t work anymore, and it hasn’t for several years now. Modern workers want to know why they do what they do, and it’s especially imperative for Millennials. When Millennials ask why, remember that they don’t ask because they’re questioning your authority. They ask because they want to understand the context

Understanding why gains buy-in and leads to higher engagement. When our team doesn’t understand the why, the result is compliance, not engagement.  

A great example of this: I was recently in a small hometown grocery store getting a few things. At the register, I handed the cashier a $20 bill. She took a counterfeit marker, drew a mark on the $20, and then put it into the cash drawer. I casually asked, “What would you do if the mark wasn’t the right color?” I was curious about the procedures she would go through if someone gave her counterfeit money. She looked at me with a straight face and said, “I would put it in the drawer with the other money.” 

It was obvious to me that her manager told her to draw a mark on the bill with no explanation. No one told her why. I’m not even convinced she knew what color the mark would be if it were counterfeit. She just knew she was supposed to mark it with the special marker.  

Simply put, she complied. She did exactly as she was told, but the “why” was never explained. The result? Compliance, not engagement. You tell me what to do but not why, so I do it—and that’s about as far as I go.  

As a leader, we want engagement. Increased engagement results in increased productivity and profitability, with the same number of employees—that’s where we all want to be.  

During your regular one-on-ones, ask your team members a few short questions:  

  • Do you know the why of what you do? Can you relate that to me in 30 seconds or less?  
  • Do you feel like the things you do are essential to the company? Why or why not?  
  • Do you know how to suggest improvements? Would you feel comfortable doing that?  

And remember: the only thing you get to say when they answer is, “Thank you.” Don’t get defensive—it’s poor energy management. It also shuts down future feedback. Simply nod and say thank you.  

Everyone needs to know the why. Take the time to ask and truly listen.