Rerum cognoscere causas
Have you noticed how everyone furiously ‘likes’ Simon Sinek posts on social media?
How everyone seems to have a copy of Start with Why strategically positioned on a shelf behind them on video calls, or in the shelving unit in their office when you are face to face. How everyone energetically agrees that we should always ask why. In fact, we should start with knowing why we are doing things. The purpose of actions.
We all seem to agree that it is paramount to know the causes of things.
Rerum cognoscere causas, the motto of the London School of Economics, the august institution that bestowed me my PhD, chose the most inspiring of rallying cries for its students and, questionably, chose the beaver as their animal mascot. You can’t win them all, I guess – no sniggering at the back.
To know the causes of things.
That should be our motivation.
And to do that, we need to ask questions.
A lot of questions: who and when and how and above all… Why. We start with it and pretty much stick with it because each answer usually begs more questions and, in order to get to know the causes of things, we seek answers, we ask questions.
That’s what start with why means, boys and girls.
That’s what you are ‘liking’ with so much gusto.
What actually happens when you ask people ‘why are we doing this?’
Very occasionally you get a good answer.
Usually you get rolled eyes or a perfunctory ‘this is the plan’ or ‘you wouldn’t understand, it’s complicated’ or an aggravated half-baked nothing of an answer. You get defensiveness. And you have to double down and say yes but tell me why this, tell me why you chose this and why it works.
Asking why is perceived almost always as unhelpful and passive aggressive.
I had a team member once who bristled every time I asked her why she was doing something.
Each and every time, I genuinely wanted to know her reasons. What she was trying to achieve by this thing. What impact we were trying for, why and how would we know if it’s working. What alternatives did we consider, perhaps, to achieve the same aim? But mostly it was a case of tell me what I am looking at and how I know it’s the right thing: what question were you answering, what assumptions did you make, when do we know it worked?
Every time I asked why she got defensive.
And every time we had the same conversation: why are you getting defensive?
Because, she would say, this is a passive aggressive question.
I have been accused of being aggressive in the past but passive aggressive is not in my repertoire. I am not subtle enough or patient enough for it.
So every time I would remind her that there is nothing passive about this. It’s a genuine question. That begs an answer. That needs an answer. All the more now that I see you squirming because before I asked out of genuine geekery and curiosity and now? Now I worry you didn’t think it through.
This was not a good game, but we kept playing it.
And sometimes she had good answers. And sometimes she didn’t, which goes to show that people don’t learn as she could have easily known a few weeks into working for me that she should be counting on me asking.
And almost every single time we played this game, her team didn’t know what those answers were, even when she had good ones. She didn’t explain the causes of things to them. Or expect them to ask.
And yet she likes Simon Sinek posts every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Why did she do this?
Why do people become so defensive when you ask genuine searching questions in the workplace?
I think there are three distinct reasons behind this.
One is that a reflex is built after years of receiving scorn in the form of patronising, dismissive or impossible-to-answer questions. If scorn from high above usually came at you with the opening gambit of an innocent sounding ‘why are you doing this?’ question, reflexes of defensiveness become second nature.
The second reason is that people are used to getting away without thinking too deeply.
I have, on four separate times in my career so far, questioned someone’s numbers after they were confidently presented, only to be told under pressure that they are hypothetical, ballparks, gut feel etc… in other words, made up.
People are used to doing things, activity at all cost, deploying the playbook and not being questioned too closely about whether they questioned too closely.
And the third reason why people react badly to being asked why they do things is that they are used to saying that asking is good but they are not used to doing it. They have learned to parrot ‘start with why’ but they don’t… they don’t start with why… and when you do, it feels jarring. Like you are breaking the rules of the game.
And I guess you are. Because what folks say and what they do doesn’t always chime but they expect to get away with it. And you are not letting them. Even worse: you are asking them to explain themselves, what they were hoping to get away with and their reasons for it.
I know the dance is ask but not really expect an answer or say you asked but get on with what you were going to do anyway and that is why, boys and girls, we end up getting what we always got.
The thing about asking real questions is that you need to accept that they may lead to a change in what we were going to do. If they don’t, great. But they might. And that’s kind of the point of them. So you need to be able to accept that this is a potential outcome of any conversation. But we don’t. We defend the plan.
Instead, we assume that any conversation that may lead to a shift in action plans is ipso facto a personal sleight, an attack or a disaster to be avoided.
And we need to move away from that set of behaviours. We cannot pay lip service to asking questions and shy away from doing it.
I know it’s how it’s usually done.
But that’s not how you progress. That’s not how you do great things. That’s not how we do things here.
Here we ask why.
Here we expect to be asked why.
Again and again and as many times as it takes, to know the causes of things.
And yes, a barrage of questions may get annoying.
Let’s face it, parents may stop answering their kids’ endless litany of ‘but why?’ on pretext of being fed up, but they really stop when they no longer know the answer to why is the sea blue if the sky is blue because of the sea and water is clear?
And that’s the thing about knowing the causes of things: you won’t always know the answer.
You will need to think, re-think, go work things out and learn some new things in the process. And in an ever-changing world, the quest for knowing the causes of things never ends. So get comfortable with being asked, with questioning yourself. Oh. And learning. Above all. Get comfortable with the idea that you will never know all the answers and all the causes of things, so the quest never ends.
And that, my friends, is the point of life, the universe and everything.
The meaning of it all remains 42.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!