Bad Habits of a Gen Y-er: Asking Why

by Emily Jasper on January 26, 2009

Asking Why. Anyone who has kids, knows kids, or has watched TV about kids, knows what I’m talking about. I am like that four-year-old who doesn’t stop asking “Why?”

It’s not that I want to be annoying, and I usually do cut myself off after the second Why. I also went to a pretty prestigious school, so I’m not having a blonde moment. And honestly, I’m not really trying to challenge authority. (I say “not really” because what usually happens when someone asks “why” is that everyone gets defensive, and you do challenge their authority.)

So why do I ask “Why?” Simply to improve my own understanding of a situation or process. I come from a family of engineers, so I can’t help but be curious about the way things work.

This is not to be confused with issues with authority or challenging “the man.” The last thing I want is to make trouble or rub people the wrong way.

As a Gen-Yer, I am too young to have absorbed years and years of history of how things are done in the workplace. Based on stories from books or my mother, I have a pretty decent idea of what has happened in the past…glass ceiling…pantsuits…Enron…and of course the current economic climate thanks to reading about our good friends Fannie and Freddie.

So I have to ask. Fill in the blanks, if you will.

A typical situation goes like this: I am in a meeting, having seen a broken process harm our ability to do business. The point of the meeting is to discuss how we might change that process. Half-way through the meeting, I realize that we aren’t really there to change it. Just talk about it. And not only were we going to talk about it, we were going to praise it like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. So before I automatically label everyone in the room as a crack head (because these are pretty smart people), I ask about how the process came to be and why we trust it so much.

And then the poop hits the fan.

Situations like this arise pretty frequently around me. And I have been advised on a regular basis that I might want to hold my questions for one-on-one discussions, not for the whole group. Of course my response to that is “Why would I want to do that?”

Apparently everyone has an ego that needs protecting and stroking. So asking why is like taking a shot below the belt.

So then there’s another Why: “Why are these executives afraid of ‘why’ questions? Shouldn’t they be secure enough around their decisions to answer without feeling threatened?” If you cycle around like this a few more times, you eventually come to everyone’s favorite answer, “Because that’s just the way it’s always been done.”

And if you ask “Why” after that answer, you’ve officially become the four-year-old.

Have I learned anything from this? Sure, but probably not what everyone else wants me to learn. See, I’ve already been publicly humiliated across all of my company’s North America offices (and I’ll write about that later). I’m still standing. I didn’t throw a hissy fit, and I didn’t storm off with two middle fingers blazing.

Plus, if we always do things the “way it’s always been done,” then how are we going to get better? How are we going to learn, grow, and truly become the best?

So I’m going to keep asking “Why” because it’s expected of me. Remember, I am a Gen-Why-er.

The views expressed in my blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Graphic from clipart