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What’s the “why” of your job?

You have goals to hit, but why are you pursuing them? If you know why, you can improve or negotiate them.

5 min read


Susan Fowler

Susan Fowler

Collecting silly kid jokes becomes a pastime when you have young ones in your life. “I’ve been trying to memorize the alphabet, but I only know 25 letters. I don’t know why.”

That joke was top of mind this week as my husband and I were trying to enjoy breakfast in a restaurant’s outside courtyard.

The early-morning serenity was ruined by landscapers armed with buzz saws cutting down trees in the neighboring parking lot. We were annoyed by more than the noise. The trees were beautiful and provided the only shade in the area. Why were they being chopped down? A woman sitting near us was dismayed, too. She happened to be a landscape architect and explained the trees were a drought-tolerant variety perfect for this setting.

My curiosity got the better of me. Waving to get one of the landscaper’s attention, I asked the obvious. I was frustrated by their response: “We don’t know. We wondered the same thing. These are perfectly healthy trees. It makes us sad, we can’t understand why they should be cut down.”

I asked another seemingly obvious question: “Then why do it?” Their answer pained me: “Because our boss told us to.” I continued to pry, but it became apparent that even as adults, they didn’t know the whole alphabet. They didn’t know why.

In the interest of your own self-development, you would be wise to be sure you know why you do what you do each day. Whether your goals or objectives and key results are cascaded down or set by you, take the time to clarify, negotiate or reframe them so you can fully engage.


If your goal is to buzzsaw perfectly healthy trees, be sure you understand why. When your parents told you to do something as a child, they might not have appreciated your impertinence when you countered with “Why?” (They probably answered with,” Because I’m your father and I told you to do it.”) But as an adult, you have a responsibility to understand why you do what you do at work.

You might still get labeled as impertinent, but if you ask for clarification in the right way, you might also earn respect — and maybe have people thinking twice about the fairness of what they are asking from you.

What if that landscaper had asked, “I understand that this morning you want me to remove all the trees in the Mount Carmel parking lot and transfer them to the chipper where another team will pick them up. I want to meet your expectations, and I’m also hoping to learn as much as I can about our business, so I have a couple of questions.

“Why are the trees being taken down? Are they diseased, interfering with parked cars, or being replaced with more drought-tolerant varieties? Do the leaves cause a problem or have there been complaints? If customers ask us why we’re taking them down, how do you want us to respond?”

If you think those questions are too formal and you have a good relationship with your manager, you could simply ask, “That’s a strange request, we’re used to planting trees, not chopping them down. What’s the story?”

Negotiate your goal

If you find your goal unfair, unattainable or not important to your role’s purpose, be proactive and present alternatives. If you need more authority to get the job done, be specific about what you need and why.

Allay your manager’s fears of giving you the authority you’ve earned by providing examples from the past, a rationale for the present and a plan for the future. Do your due diligence and build a business case for changing your goal to one that is reasonable and relevant.

Reframe your goal

If the way your goal is written or defined doesn’t align with your values or generate interest and meaning for you, reframe it so that it does. Focus on what you can learn or how you can contribute by pursuing your goal.

The skill of self-leadership includes having the mindset and skill set to proactively clarify, negotiate and reframe your goals. So, whatever you do, don’t start your day with only 25 letters. The “why” is essential to your quality of motivation, well-being and performance.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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