Project Manager – Stop asking “why did you do that,” ask this instead

As a project manager leading change and as a functional supervisor, I often find myself wanting to ask someone – “why did you do that?”  When I ask my 9 year old daughter this question, two things happen: she shrugs her shoulders, and I feel stupid.  If this question slips out accidentally at work, I get the adult version of a shoulder-shrug: the answer that starts with “I don’t know, I guess I was just…”  There are a lot of reasons why this isn’t a great question, and there are better questions for probing why someone “did that.”

Why is “why did you do that” the wrong question?

Think about what it feels like to be asked that question.  What is the effort your brain is spending to figure out the answer to this question? First, you have to determine – what exactly is the “that” the question is referencing? Even if the situation is clear, I still have to spend the effort to mentally review the entire story and all the circumstances behind why I made my choice.

For example, maybe I used a procurement card to buy something I knew was not on the list of approved items. My project manager asks: “why did you do that” and stares expectantly at me.  The project manager expects an answer, like right now, and all I can do is repeat the question in my own mind. “Why did I buy that thing I knew I shouldn’t have? I wish I had just bought it with my own money and gotten reimbursed. Even better, I should have given myself time to ask the PM before it was an emergency, so we could work out a strategy together. Now, I feel stupid, but I really had to have that widget so the project could meet the deadline!”

And meanwhile, during this entire internal dialog, I still haven’t answered the question!!

The problem with asking “why did you do that” as a project manager is three-fold:
  1. It makes an accusation that is ignorant of the context.
    As a project manager, when I ask “why did you do that,” I’m communicating that something wrong happened, and I have to fix it.  There’s a critical assumption in this question – I’m assuming what happened is wrong, and my way would have been better.  But is that really true? Might there be circumstances that made the person’s choice better?
  2. It engages the “fight or flight” physiological reaction.
    The question “why did you do that” is a challenge, and is perceived as a threat question. What happens when we are threatened? A part of our brain called the amygdala reacts and triggers a physiological chain reaction, resulting in what we refer to as a “fight or flight” response – hyper focus on the threat to determine survival. Since the threat here is a question, we are physiologically driven to hyper-focus on question itself, and not our answer – what does the project manager want to hear? What’s the right answer? What do I have to do to get out of this threatening situation? None of those responses are helpful, but they are the only responses available when asked a threatening question.
  3. The answer won’t change anything.
    As a project manager, if I’m asking “why did you do that,” I’ve already made up my mind that the person did something wrong, and it’s my job to correct it.  My 9 year old daughter is smart enough to figure this out – she knows, when I ask “why did you do that,” nothing she offers as a response will change the lecture I’m about to launch into, so she offers the best thing she can: a shoulder shrug.  The question is disingenuous, and doesn’t offer space for exploration of a situation or learning from what happened.

As a project manager, if I need to correct something that happened, asking “why did you do that” is disingenuous and slows down the process – I need to just start talking.  If I want to truly explore the situation together and build a “lessons learned” moment, I need to ask a better question.

Better question #1: What benefit did you get from taking that action?

This question has served me well in the past, and gets much better responses than “why did you do that?”  It’s basically the same question, but without the threat. By focusing on the benefit, I remove the threat of accusation and start a conversation about the person’s choice or behavior.  Almost always, the answer comes in the form of a narrative – since there’s no threat, the person answering can tell the story of what happened.  The result is a collaborative conversation that results in a lessons-learned moment, and a personal commitment to a different choice the next time a similar situation happens.

Better question #2: What happened as a result?

Notice I didn’t finish out the question – it’s not “What happened as a result of your choice?” Yes, we all have and make choices.  But if I am truly interested in learning about a situation and why something happened, I need to remove the threat of accusation.

There’s another reason I like this question too.  It’s open-ended, and invites someone to respond with what they think is important.  Knowing what someone else thinks is important gives me valuable context that I might not otherwise get.  Perhaps as project manager I think one particular goal is most important, and because haven’t conveyed that well, one of the project team members has filled that vacuum of information with something s/he thinks is most important based on the role s/he plays on the project. Open-ended questions can sometimes invite someone to reveal mis-communications, and provide an opportunity to identify and correct them.

Better question #3: What prevented you from following process X?

This question has proven valuable in situations where there’s a standard to follow and someone didn’t meet the standard. The assumption in this question is more humble – there’s a reason you did what you did, and I’d like you to walk me through that reason.

I like this question, because it often leads to process improvement conversations. As a project manager, I’m able to explore the difference between the standard and what happened, the benefits of making a change, and the risks of making a change. Regardless of whether you end up making changes, the conversation is a powerful team-building opportunity that both honors the autonomy and decision making of a team member and confirms a shared commitment to a single standard.

Bonus – what do you do when you let the “why did you do that” slip?

It is inevitable – at some point, as a project manager, the stress will build and the question will slip out in the moment – “why did you do that?” And invariably, you’ll get the shoulder shrug or wide-eye stare as someone tries to figure out exactly how to respond to your question.

What do you do now?

Be honest and authentic.

Own up to the mistake, quickly explain why you think it’s a mistake, and reset the conversation with a different question. It’s been my experience that honesty and and authenticity go a long way to building vulnerability and trust in situations like this.

Do you have favorite questions for exploring why something happened?  We’d love to see your suggestions and questions – leave them in the comments below!

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