As a kid, you probably weren’t afraid to express a little curiosity—specifically, by responding to every order from your parents (“Clean your room!”) with a simple, yet, in your young mind, compelling, “Why?”
While most parents probably don’t blink an eye at that retort, when your boss issues an order (“I need that PowerPoint ready by 3 PM”), “Why?” is probably not the most appropriate response.
In a professional setting, asking “Why?” can seem disrespectful and combative—and if you want to succeed in your position and move up in the company, that’s probably not the attitude you want to exude.
Used appropriately, however, that one word can make a difference in your productivity, happiness, and career advancement—particularly in these four situations.
1. You Don’t Agree With the Way You’re Supposed to Do Something
Companies love processes. They document standard operating procedures, best practices, and step-by-step instructions for everything from making a sales call to brewing coffee in the break room.
While established processes can be helpful, you may have ideas to do things in a different, more efficient way—and asking “Why?” can be the perfect way to initiate a dialogue about changing up the old standards.
For instance, to finalize a report, the current process may require you to get approval from a number of managers across several departments—who don’t actually have anything to do with the report. In your mind, there must be a more efficient way to get that item checked off your to-do list.
Asking your boss, “Why do we do things this way?” will either reveal why those approvals are necessary or urge your manager to reevaluate the process (and give you and your idea a chance to shine).
2. You’re Asked to Do Something Outside of Your Job Description
In some roles, no responsibility is off limits—especially when it comes to startups. You may be writing code one day, then organizing the supply room the next. In many cases, it’s important to pitch in where you’re needed without complaint.
But there is a line. For example, maybe your boss asks you to make a number of calls to help organize a personal party she’s hosting. Or, even though you were hired as a sales representative, your manager constantly asks you to take customer support calls, which hinders your ability to connect with your prospects.
To make sure you can continue to fulfill your core responsibilities and grow within your role, you may need to respectfully approach your manager with a thoughtful “Why?” You could say, for example, “I’m not sure this aligns with my role—can you help me understand why I’ve been assigned this task?”
With that question, you can open up a conversation to more clearly define your role and responsibilities.
3. You Get Feedback You Don’t Agree With
There are few things more disheartening than turning in an assignment you’re extremely proud of or scheduling a performance review after what you thought was a stellar year—only to hear feedback that’s completely out of line with your expectations.
Instead of praise, you’re told your assignment needs multiple revisions. Rather than giving you a raise, your manager suggests that you should completely revamp your management style to be more effective.
If that feedback doesn’t match up with your expectations, now is the perfect time to dig deeper and ask for details. For example, you could point to a specific portion of your assignment that was marked with edits and ask your manager, “Why did you made this change?” Or, in response to a suggested change in your management style, you could say, “Can you explain why you think this is a better approach?”
It’s only when you truly understand that feedback that you can make the necessary changes.
4. You Didn’t Get Something You Wanted
Maybe you made a strong case to your boss for a raise, voiced your interest in a promotion to a manager role, or interviewed at your absolute dream company—but you didn’t make the cut.
The embarrassment of that defeat can be enough to make your turn your head and pretend it all didn’t happen—you’ll just try again next year.
But vowing to simply “do better” leaves you with no tangible goals. Instead, the simple question “Why?” can help you can gain insight into what you need to do differently to achieve that goal.
For example, maybe you ask your boss, “Can you tell me why Aaron was chosen for the promotion?” You might discover that while you’ve been a high-performing team member, Aaron spent the last year getting certified as a project manager and volunteering for cross-departmental projects, and used those achievements to position himself as the ideal candidate.
Now, you have insight into exactly why you weren’t chosen—and what you can do differently to boost your chances next time.
Asking “Why?” doesn’t have to be rude or disruptive. Phrased respectfully, the simple question can help you do your job better, be more productive, and boost your career success.