runningLook at two questions:

1) What actions do I take today to learn and grow?

2) Why do I take actions today to learn and grow?

The difference between the two questions is one word – that changes everything.

“What” and “why” have similar grammatical function, namely they are words which start questions asking for information, not just yes or no.  Their semantic function is different, though, in the type of information what accesses and why accesses.  Their dictionary definitions point out the differences between what and why: “what” asks which thing or which particular one of many; “why” asks for what purpose, reason or cause, with what intention, justification or motive.  Thus, the question, “what actions did I take today to learn and grow?” creates the response of singular conscious but does not approach examining the underlying reason for your actions.  Nor, does the “what” question open up an exploratory pathway that can uncover more than “which particular one out of many.”  The question “why do I take actions today to learn and grow?” opens a pathway for reflection that can lead to understanding your actions and how your subconscious thoughts affect overt behavior. “What” and “why” have complementary functions in that why is the abstract starting point to get at the concrete answers.  “Why” gives you a basis for understanding your actions and “what” gives evidence of your actions.

I started reflecting on the two vastly different questions after reading Victor Lipman’s blog on Forbes “Why Employee Engagement is not Just the Job of Management” and its precursor, also on Forbes, “Why are so many Employees Disengaged?”  In “Why Employee Engagement is not Just the Job of Management” Lipman suggests that employees should ask themselves the following five engagement questions each day:

  1. What did I do today to improve communication with my manager and peers?
  2. What actions did I take today to learn and grow?
  3. Whom did I thank today, and who recognized me?
  4. Was I mindful today of our company’s long-term goals?
  5. Today, how engaged was I at work?

These questions all ask for specific answers.  They give a person a chance to recollect how their day went but not why they made the choices that they did to “improve communication with my manager and peers” or “whom did I thank”.  For me a similar thematic set of questions that gets at the motivation for my actions or the why I do/did x are:

  1. Why do I need to improve communication with my manager and peers?
  2. Why do I need to take any actions today to learn and grow?
  3. Why do I need to thank someone today, and why should someone recognize me?
  4. Why should I be mindful today of our company’s long-term goals?
  5. Why should I care about how I am engaged at work?

These questions also situate me within the mission and vision of the company by causing me to reflect on how I integrate myself as a member of my organization rather than an individual actor who happens to be working within this organization at this time.

As I further compared these two sets of questions and the different avenues of response they evoke within the questioner, I realized these questions had different dialogue partners.  The first set is directed toward myself and answered by myself.  Contrastingly, the second set of questions is directed toward myself but the discussion is open-ended enough to invite other partners.  Also, I looked at how Lipman describes the groups he is writing to.  In both articles, he organizes his dialogue partners as two definably separate groups: managers and employees instead of noting that organizational communication flows well when all workers in an organization are seen as a holistic set with different functions all of which are valued because each function is essential to viability.

So, using the questions why and what are excellent reflection and communication tools when practiced by all levels of an organization.  The “why” can stimulate group thinking and discussion, while the “what “outlines specific personal steps.  The “why” situates a person within an entire organization whereas the “what” situates a person within the job description tasks.

In the end, the purpose is what counts – why you do something leads you to committing, or not, to what you do.