The importance of “why”

Taking my daughter, Macy, on college visits recently reminded me of a story from my college days that I shared with her.

A fun fact about me, I enjoy healthy competition. When I was in graduate school, I had an international class and the professor broke us into groups, asked us to read some material and present on it – all within an hour.

Ready to ace the assignment, I quickly read the material and waited for my project mates to finish. Without appreciating that I was the only non-international student in my group, I failed to recognize that English was not their first language. As a result, they did not read the material as quickly as I had.

Falling into the error trap of time pressure, my impatience got the best of me – as it seemed we were running out of time to prep the presentation. So I suggested a theme to my group. After a pause, everyone nodded and I ran with it.

The team received a “C” on the project, and that was not something I was used to. When it was time for feedback, my project mates said I didn’t give them enough time to read, and I forced my idea on them.

My first reaction was to think that if I hadn’t moved the group along, we would have failed completely. But as I saw the merriment on the professor’s face, I realized there was a bigger point – or “why” – to the assignment. I learned a lot that day. For instance, in many cultures moving one’s head up and down is a signal of understanding – not agreement.

If I had focused on why the professor wanted us to do the assignment or why she broke us into the groups in the manner she did, I may have responded better to the challenge. If I had even questioned why my fellow students were taking their time, I may have learned more from them.

Many corporations and businesses, including PSEG, comprise people with diverse backgrounds and it’s important that we make efforts to understand each other. Even identical twins still have separate lives and thus have different backgrounds and experiences.

When you want to go from good to great, it’s all about perspective. For us to excel, that brand new employee’s voice needs to be heard the same as someone who has been here 30 years. When we shut down ideas, we’re not being inclusive and may be missing out on the idea that saves a life.

For example, if one of our techs goes on a field visit and sees someone’s fire extinguisher, the very piece of equipment that might save their life, is empty, it’s not enough just to note that it needs to be charged. Why has this person left their fire extinguisher uncharged?

When we ask why, we understand what someone’s thought process is and then we can get to the real conversation.

I often tell the story of a son who is cooking a ham according to his family recipe. His mother sees him cutting off the ham’s ends and asks why he’s doing it. He says, because that’s the way you did it and that’s the way grandma did it. The mom responds, “We used to cut the ends off because the ham didn’t fit in the pan we had. Your pan has plenty of room.”

When you get to the ”why,” sometimes we find out that things we do today are simply because someone took a shortcut or didn’t have a tool that exists today. When you ask about the why, you connect and can get to the next level.

Part of what we need to do in our work to further advance diversity, equity and inclusion is make sure people are comfortable enough to speak up. We often see the “what,” but through conversation, we can understand the “why,” allowing us to grow together to achieve great outcomes.

Brian Clark, VP Gas Operations - PSE&G

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