Good knowledge is at the core of innovation. The more that people understand the way the world works, the more that they can develop novel solutions to problems. This type of knowledge is called “causal knowledge.”
Studies demonstrate that the people with the highest quality knowledge are the ones who routinely explain things to themselves as they learn. That is, these people consistently ask themselves “Why?” and then answer that question as they learn. When people self-explain in this way, they help to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, which gives them the raw material they need for innovation later.
Organizations can promote this kind of self-explanation by creating a culture that routinely asks “Why?” If you know that you are going to be responsible for explaining why things work the way they do in your organization, then you will habitually prepare to answer that question. That will ensure that you are maximizing the quality of your knowledge regularly.
Think about the financial collapse in 2007. As books like The Big Short by Michael Lewis make clear very few people routinely asked why the structured financial products that were created in the mortgage industry were sensible. Most people did not question the creation of these securities and did not understand the lending practices that originated the mortgages incorporated into them.
Those few people who did work to understand what was happening ultimately made a lot of money on the backs of investors. More people asking “Why?” more often might have led to greater scrutiny of this facet of the financial industry before it fell apart.
Unfortunately, most organizations do not support a culture in which people ask “Why?” In particular, “Why?” has come to be used in a toxic way in many organizations. It becomes a stand-in for “I disagree.”
In most workplaces these days, we value collegiality. We want to feel like we get along with the people around us. One way that we maintain that air of collegiality is by avoiding direct conflict with our coworkers. That means that we shy away from simple declarative sentences that might create conflict.
When we disagree with someone at work, it is uncomfortable to just come out and say, “I disagree.” Instead, we state our disagreements indirectly. One easy way to do that is to ask “Why?” By asking “Why?” you get people to talk about their reasons. Then, you can disagree with those reasons. When you argue against the reasons people have for their actions and decisions, it is a more indirect way of expressing disagreement with them than if you come out and argue directly against their decision.
The problem is that this mode of argument has become so common, that the question “Why?” has now come to reflect disagreement. Consequently, people begin to get defensive as soon as you start asking “Why?” In addition, people who get into the habit of asking “Why?” at work quickly get labeled as difficult, because the assumption is that they are disagreeing with others.
We need to reclaim “Why?” as a positive force in the workplace. That requires that we start to tell our colleagues about the importance of maximizing the quality of the causal and explanatory knowledge around us. It also means finding another method for disagreeing with coworkers while still being collegial. Finally, it is crucial that when people start to use the question “Why?” at work when they really mean “I disagree” that we highlight that and work to state disagreements more explicitly.