How v. Why, and Why Not?

The May issue of the Center For Creative Leadership’s  e-newsletter features a short blurb on a new book by journalist and author Brian Carney. The book is called Freedom, Inc. and the article begins this way:

"We trust people to be adults in so many areas of their lives. But when they walk through the doors at work, we insist they need detailed rules and descriptions for how to do a job."

Carney has explored “the hidden cost of how” – the ways in which top-down, command-and-control companies don’t see opportunities, miss deadlines, and lose customers by employing detailed rules and prescribing exact procedures rather than trusting their employees to get the job done. At best, he argues, the culture of “how” leads to codification of inefficiency; at worst to disengaged and disgruntled employees.

One of the companies he studied was FAVI, a French manufacturer of a specific auto part. Jean-Francois Zobrist, the CEO of FAVI, makes the distinction between “Comment?” companies, or how companies in  French, and “Pourquois?” companies, the companies which ask their employees simply to understand why they do their jobs. Why companies relinquish control, ask their employees to do their work to meet the goal rather than the standards manual, and allow the freedom for innovation at every level.

Zobrist also argues that the culture of how encourages companies to measure all the wrong things: is the employee on time? did she produce up to standard?, rather than the only thing which matters: is the job well done, and is the customer happy?

This simple idea of moving from how to why companies seems so right to me that I wish I were the author. It seems so modern. It fits the model of the move to service industries (v. manufacturing, though we have seen that it works there as well) and of millennial employees (v. “ company men.”) It’s also another way of understanding what a trusted-based company looks like.

Let’s go a step farther, and take why companies – where each employee understands the mission and why she does her job – to why not companies, and ask everyone to question why not do things in a new way? No one knows the job better than the person who’s doing it every day, so let’s tear down those pseudo-inspirational posters of eagles and oceans extolling EFFORT and TEAMWORK, and instead ask in big letters WHY? And WHY NOT? Why am I doing this in the first place, and why not try it a new way?

9 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Asking the "why not?" question in another way can also produce some interesting explorations, inquiry that often leads to root-cause "excuses" for the "why not."

    The question: "What’s right about not being a ‘why’ company?" Obviously, something has to be "right" since so many choose to operate that way. Once we drill down into the "why?" of this choice of management style/culture, and see what’s underneath the "excuses," then work can begin on change and transformation. 

  2. Julian Summerhayes
    Julian Summerhayes says:


    Thanks for the excellent post; another book to read! I have tried to retweet this from your page but I keep getting an error. You may want to have a go – it may just be me.


    Best wishes


  3. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    So often the "why" we are command-and-control boils down to "we can’t trust our employees," don’t you think?  And maybe underneath that is "we don’t fully trust ourselves" or "we can’t in any way trust the universe."


    And Julian:

    Thanks for your kind remarks and your feedback on the Twitter bug.  It’s in the hands of our excellent tech team.  I hope you’ll try again later.



  4. dr. jim sellner phD.,DipC.
    dr. jim sellner phD.,DipC. says:

    Re: your statement that no one knows their job better than the person who is doing it. Not always. Some people certainly do. I think, tho’ that the person doing their job knows the context of the their job. Our job as leaders/managers is to help people develop their comtpencies and motivations to do their best. To create volunteers, not "voluntolds."

    And, about the ‘why" & "how’.  I think it’s more that that. Its about all of the below and some people are more interested in one or two of them. So here’s my kick at the can of engaging people from their context:

    1. What? – needs to be done – from a two-way conversation.

    2. Why? – it should be done.

    3. How? – can we best do it – again a two-way conversation.

    4. When can we do it by?

    5. Imagine If! – a vision of the best possible outcome

    I also think the two-way conversation needs to take into account the person’s or team’s competence and motivation levels, which is the foundation of my book Leadership for Eisnteins: Bringing Out the Genius in People.

    I’m really enjoying your blog. Thank you.

    dr. jim.

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Sandy, agree. The question, if asked over and over again, as we do in our work, most often uncovers the unconscious "excuses"  once the so-called standard, "logical" excuses are articulated. Then, the good stuff arises. Need for control, power, status, recognition and/or the fear of loss of such (all the ego-based stuff). "Who am I if I’m not in control, calling the shots, or if I give away "my" power", etc?"

    Too, fear that another might be "better" than me in some way, shape or form (which will make me feel "bad" or "wrong" and I can’t fathom that). Internal mistrust of others given one’s own biography and biology…a built-in vigilance that keeps one playing it close to the vest, guarded, controlling, or micromanaging.

    In essence, as you suggest, one’s own internal conflict where one does not trust, trust itself –  having been "burned" earlier on and now see’s the world/Universe (and the world of work) more as an "unsafe," threatening and competitive place than a safe place where collaboration and asking, for example, "What do you think?" are common practices. 

    When one reaches a place of humility and feels safe in their own skin, then being trusting and trusting others comes more easily.  Such is the journey.


  6. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Dr. Jim:

    Your questions certainly add nuance, and I love that you point out the need for two-way conversations.  I would argue that in taking into account the team’s motivation and competence, most employers err on the side of under-estimating both.

    I’m looking forward to reading more in your book!


  7. Kavita
    Kavita says:

    Excellent post! Command-and-control companies don’t realise what they are missing out on. Trust is an essential element in an organization. Vineet Nayar in his book ‘Employees First, Customers Second’ talks about ‘Trust through transparency’. By creating an environment of trust, employees feel empowered which leads to higher productivity. Employees like being told ‘what’ to do not ‘how’ to do it. Companies should learn to relinquish control and trust their employees to do their jobs well. 

  8. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    Thanks for your comments.  We too believe that transparency is key to building and maintaining trust – and that cannot be emphasized often enough.  Relinquishing control isn’t easy, of course, but doing the hard stuff is what makes life interesting, isn’t it?


  9. Kavita
    Kavita says:

    Hi Sandy.

    Thanks for your response. Relinquishing control is never easy but companies must start somewhere. 

    Looking forward to  more such posts from you. 





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