When Asking “WHY” Becomes Counterproductive.

Oscar Mwanandimai

Engineering Manager at HelloFresh


Is Your Manager Too Dominating When They Always Ask “Why”?

Everyone wants to stay connected with their managers. When managers ask specific questions, it makes their teammates feel engaged personally, not just on work topics. However, having an analytical mind and a confrontational personality, I tend to ask the question “why” a lot — which is not so productive at all times. Because every time I asked the question “why” to one of my direct reports, colleagues, leaders, or stakeholders, it would mean that I’m challenging their ego or their strong belief in an idea and disregarding the effort they were putting in.

Asking too many questions as a manager could sometimes make others doubt themselves, which would lead to them being defensive all the time. Instead of getting the answers straight, it may lead to arguments as others try to defend themselves. All in all, it may not be the best approach to ask questions as a leader.

Dealing With a Highly Analytical Mind

Change the way of questioning: One way to change that around was to change the way of questioning. Instead of asking, “why did you do this?” I’d instead ask, “what did you find in the data set that brought you to this conclusion?” Another way to ask this question was, “how did you analyze the data that helped you come to this solution?” This approach of a different way of asking the same questions showed a little more interest and understanding of the thought process they have put into it.

Practice makes perfect: It may sound like I changed myself overnight, but it was a lot about practice in reality. While my confrontational tone and language helped me get the answers that I was looking for, I needed to find a way to be less dominant and be more of a team player. One approach that helped me get there was preparation. Asking for more materials beforehand so that I could study the resources and absorb as much information and answer as many of my questions by myself as possible.

My habit of asking “why” questions developed maybe because as a decision-maker, I was pulled into meetings without prior knowledge and expected to make the best possible decision without enough information, oftentimes in 30minutes. During the meetings, as my teammates and stakeholders would go on and explain their points of view, my instinct would always be to ask the “why” questions. However, as time went on, I would decline meetings that did not have a clear agenda, which gave me some time to create buffers and look into more information and data. In turn, being prepared for meetings helped me verbalize my questions in a way that was less confrontational and more empathetic towards others’ thought processes.

Empathize and understand: Sometimes I can have an opinion about certain things, but asking “why” questions might not be the best way to present my viewpoints. After working with a communication coach, I was given some communication guidelines, whereby I communicated my factual observations first, expressed my feelings, and then clarified my needs accordingly. The key was to “request” to make a change based on the above, having verbalized my concerns as objectively as possible.

Finally, I started to be perceived as being open to more ideas and welcoming diversity of thought instead of challenging every idea that was brought to me.. Instead of shutting people down with my confrontational attitude with the “why” question, I was vocal but in a more constructive way.

Final Thoughts

  • Asking questions or opinionating yourself during meetings is an excellent quality to have, but what’s better is to be prepared for meetings in advance. It would enable you to have productive discussions that lead you in the right direction.
  • As a leader, we underestimate the influence we have and the impact of our language and communication. The first and most important step is being conscious of this and analyzing how your communication impacts the culture of your team(s).

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Oscar Mwanandimai

Engineering Manager at HelloFresh

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionOvercoming Bias

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