Leadership Nudge® 341 – When “Why” Becomes “Who”

February 17, 2021by Sandy Wilmer

As information and directives move through an organization, the language often changes from “why” (which sounds like “we need this by Tuesday in order to feed 10,000 more people”) to “who” (which sounds like “Bob wants this done by Tuesday”). When the “why” is maintained, people are intrinsically motivated to be more creative and thoughtful, and feel more satisfied with their work. How can you maintain the “why” as your communications flow through the organization?


Today I want to talk about a common dysfunction of hierarchies, which is, when “Why” becomes “Who.” And this is how it works. Someone near the top of the organization makes the decision to do something, implement some kind of a change. And it’s usually couched in a pretty decent explanation anchored on why we want to make this change. But then, as it cascades down the organization, that “Why” has a tendency to shift to “Who.” In other words, instead of saying, “the reason we need to do this is XYZ” it becomes “Bob wants us to do this.” 

Now the problem with shifting from “why” to “who” is that we’re shifting from an invitation to an intrinsic motivation model which sounds like: 

“Okay, I understand what it is behind this so that I can align my own activities to that.” 

So we’re not doing this by next Tuesday because someone’s making us, but because we know it’s very important for the client to receive the proposal by next Tuesday. 

And when we get to a “who” model what we’re doing is activating an extrinsic motivation model, which is the reason you’re doing it is for some external reason, ie personality traits. It also shifts us from a team-based and team-centered approach to a personality-centered leadership approach.  

The reason we want to stay with an intrinsic model is because research shows that when people have intrinsic motivation for a task, they tend to be more creative, more thoughtful, they derive more satisfaction from the task completion than when “I’m doing it for somebody else” or “because I have to.” 

I’m David Marquet. That’s your Leadership Nudge 

Beware the moment in the organization in the hierarchy where “why” becomes “who.” 

Sandy Wilmer

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