Why ‘Why’ is so important

Simon Sinek’s TED talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action has been viewed over 29,000,000 times at the time of writing this blog. His talk focuses on the importance of asking why a business exists – the meaning and purpose behind the balance sheet – to inspire and motivate employees. At the organisational level, understanding the ‘why’ enables individuals to feel a sense of belonging and commitment to an organisation.


Research undertaken by Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that introducing a ‘why’ – even in surprisingly modest ways –  impacts hugely on business performance. Grant visited a call centre at a large American university, where each night employees made phone calls to alumni to raise scholarship funds.

With the permission of the university, Grant and his team randomly divided the call centre representatives into three groups. For a few days, before they made calls, people in the first group read brief stories from previous employees about the personal benefits of working in the job – how they developed communication skills and sales know-how that later helped them in their careers.

The second group also read stories before hitting the phones, but theirs were from people who had received scholarships from the funds raised and who described how the money had improved their lives. The aim of these stories was to remind workers of the purpose of their efforts.

The third group was the control group; they read nothing before dialling for dollars. Participants were also told not to discuss what they’d read with the recipients of their calls. Then a month later, Grant measured the performance of the three groups.

The people in the first group, who’d been reminded of the personal benefit of working in a call centre, did no better than those in the control group. Both groups earned about the same number of weekly pledges and raised the same amount of money as they had in the weeks before the experiment.

However, the people in the second group – who took a moment to consider the significance of their work and its effect on others’ lives – raised more than twice as much money, in twice as many pledges, as they had in previous weeks and significantly more than their counterparts in the other two groups.

In other words, reminding employees about the ‘why’ doubled their performance. It’s no wonder charity fund raising events screen so many heartfelt vignettes – these are all about the ‘why’ we are doing this….Interestingly, providing background about the job – the skills element – had no impact on output.

So how can we think about the why? There are two simple ways to get started.

First, find out whether the people on your team have a ‘why’. At your next team meeting, ask this question: “What’s the purpose of this organisation?” Then hand everyone a blank index card and ask them to write their answer anonymously. Collect the cards and read them aloud. What do you hear? People don’t need to respond exactly the same but should be in the same arena. If they’re not – if answers range all over the place or people don’t have answers at all – you might have a problem no matter how good you are at the where, when and what.

Second, keep the ‘why’ alive. Once a week, at that team meeting, spend a few minutes revisiting the question. Talk about the purpose of the week’s activities and what how these activities have a part to play in the overall ‘why’ of the organisation. Discuss your efforts’ effect on other people’s lives. Remind each other why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place.