How great leaders inspire action – Simon Sinek was right about the power of WHY

Earlier this year, I was at the HR Game Changers Conference in Melbourne, where the legendary speaker Simon Sinek (of TED Talk fame and author of Start With Why; his latest book is Leaders Eat Last) joined us in the early morning to talk about how the “power of WHY” can change the way HR professionals approach their job.

Simon’s was one of the first TED talks I ever watched and his is consistently in the Top 10 best TED talks (or leadership talks in general). He speaks passionately and wisely of the importance of understanding purpose – the reasons why we do what we do, and how that not only motivates us but can help us prioritise and determine what to actually spend our time on. I've spoken and written about similar themes in my own presentations and posts, because purpose, vision and values all play a critical part in any change, retention or recognition strategy. After all, without understanding what it is a business is working towards, or where I fit in the puzzle, how do I know what behaviours should be recognised and rewarded?

If you haven’t already (or, if you haven’t seen it in a while), check out Simon’s talk here.

Would hearing something like this resonate with your people leaders?

When I first heard this talk, it was quite humbling; I was just about to kick off a massive change program in an organisation with over 300 IT professionals. Reporting lines, job descriptions and team structures were all about to change to align the business with a new strategy. I knew we had a long journey ahead, and being reminded of the “why” was critical for success of the change, as well as ongoing morale.

As a mother, I’m constantly reminder of the importance of “why” — my three year old asks me every day. On some days, every minute. Whenever I need him to change activity, or finish something, or complete a task in a certain way, the first question that often comes out of his mouth is, “But why?” I’m told that he’s only going to get more persistent. This is, as many a paediatrician and child psychologist has reminded generations of parents, part of growing up. It’s part of learning how to understand the world, and how to determine motivations.

If it is second nature for humans to ask, “why?”, why then do we think this question is irrelevant when it comes to business and our every day work? Why don’t we expect our employees to ask themselves and ask their leaders WHY they are assigned a specific project, or WHY that task is so urgent, or WHY the targets have changed, or WHY a staff member has been let go? And when they do ask, why are so few leaders prepared to answer that question?

How good is your organisation at presenting their vision to employees across different departments and locations?

When I coach people leaders on communication in the workplace, I tell them it takes at least THREE attempts before people really start understanding a message. That’s THREE times, minimum

Yet so many companies talk about their purpose and their strategy during the employee induction process, then don’t bring it up again until the yearly performance review. They forget to remind people during the journey. And they would prefer people to just get off the bus instead of answering the question "where are we going?" and "why?".  This light-touch approach makes change — no matter how big or small — an uphill battle. Try introducing a new piece of software to a group of paper-based administrators without telling them why it's happening, and without communicating the "what's in it for me?". No matter how much more efficient that software will make them, and how much easier it might make their job, they'll resist. 

Try growing a team or motivating an individual to perform without communicating why the targets have been set or the impact that specific task will make to the business as a whole. Unless every person in your team is (unusually) self-motivated and conscientious, you won't get very far.  

Because without the "why", there is no real motivation to change.

So how do we start fixing this?

How do we start communicating purpose effectively, so that it drives passion and performance?

Here are my tips:

  1. Ask your people to articulate what THEY think the purpose is. Listen first, before you speak. You will learn a lot from this exercise. You’ll see who is aligned, and you can start to identify where and why the message is being lost. Only then will you know where and how to fix the communication chain.
  2. Build your purpose into your daily vernacular. Start each day by reminding yourself and your team WHY you are here. Check your map, celebrate where you are today, and celebrate each win that takes you further in your journey to achieving your big purpose.
  3. Recognise the people who live out your purpose each and every day. Positive reinforcement is not something to roll your eyes at; it encourages repetition of specific behaviours. Recognise the people who consistently live out your values and help your business achieve your purpose. You will see your workplace transform with minimal effort. Best-practice recognition builds strong, successful businesses and ....

It’s no easy task, but it’s not impossible either.

You can read more about how to unite and engage your people in my latest e-book, Building Your Dream Team. It's a quick and easy read, and yours for free from, where this post first appeared. 

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