The Power of ‘Why?’

Simon Sinek starts with “why?” and so do many philosophers. Why do we exist? Why do we dream? Why do we believe? In the context of diversity at work, many ask, “Why change what’s not broken? Why introduce different leadership criteria? Why look at people from a different perspective? And why challenge what comes naturally like our biases and predispositions?”

What’s important about the power of these questions is that we each have to answer them for ourselves. No objective reason proffered as an answer will motivate you, the individual. It is your own “why” that needs an answer.

Take the business case for more women in leadership, for instance. At this stage, we have been talking about it ad nauseum. However, few incumbent leaders are motivated by the business case. As it doesn’t mean much to them personally, most are not inclined to instigate real and lasting change. The business case does not respond to their personal “why?” – “Why does it matter to me personally whether there are more women in leadership?” When our leaders can answer this question for themselves, then they can start answering the question, “What can I do to increase the number of female leaders?”

For me, the personal “why” is clear: I do what I do because I believe that by respecting the contribution of an individual, we empower that individual with purpose and meaning. And that can only lead to good.

Let me show you what I mean.  Take ‘Julie’ – a mid-career lawyer in private practice. Julie has been working hard for years, producing great work for the firm’s clients. She was brought up to be mild-mannered, polite and deferential. She went to an excellent school and university where these characteristics where further honed and subtly encouraged. Now Julie is working amid colleagues – many of whom are male – who were raised to be assertive, single-minded, self-serving and confident. Because of this dynamic, Julie often feels uncomfortable speaking up at meetings, insisting on her points of view or pushing forward her own agenda for promotion or salary increase. The knock-on effect is that she is unlikely to feel like a valued contributor; or worse, she could be judged as being insecure and lacking in leadership competencies. Her motivation will begin to dwindle and she will soon start asking herself why she’s working so hard if she isn’t vested in the job like other staff. Her colleagues, however, those who have managed to be heard and push through their ideas and interests, are feeling valued and encouraged and see purpose and meaning in their work: other people’s respect and recognition.

Julie – who could be your daughter, sister, niece or good friend – has many peers like her at the firm, as well as other sectors, like Lucy in Asset Management, Terri in Tech and Yemi in Academia.

What if it were within your “why” to give Julie and her peers (and others who are currently struggling to be heard) a voice? Imagine how that would change the work environment. Julie would start expressing her ideas, which might be very different from the rest. She would feel that her opinions are worth expressing, in fact are solicited, and that her contribution is valued and appreciated. This would give meaning to her work and she would continue to deliver well into her most productive work years. That’s great news for Julie and her peers – but not only them. It’s great news for business, society and – most importantly – you! You have empowered another person and yourself by understanding what motivates you. By answering your own “why?” you gain an insight that propels you as an individual and us as a society.

To find out what the “why?” in diversity might be for colleagues and friends, join us on the evening of the 10th of October as we celebrate Ada Lovelace day with the BBC Women in STEM at our evening panel event Women in Tech: Breaking Barriers.