Management / The American View: On Why?

The American View: On Why?

Understanding and being able to articulate why you do the things you do is immensely important in evaluating your potential as a potential hire. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger leverages some business school and military school teaching material to help argue why so few people ever think to ask those ‘why’ questions in interviews.

It’s occasionally difficult to explain what my ‘beat’ is as Business Reporter’s resident American ‘blogger, since my columns tend to cover a wide range of topics. In the last week alone, I had pieces land in both the ‘management’ section and the ‘technology’ section. Meanwhile, my social media ‘about’ blurbs advertise me as a ‘security’ writer. So … which is it? Business, technology, or security? To be honest, I don’t see those as different beats; the modern workplace (regardless of industry niche) represents a convergence of people, processes, tech, and risk. They’re all the same topic, when you consider that people are the primary focus of all those subdivisions. People performing work, people deploying and using kit, people making mistakes, etc.

I’m not trying to get existential or pretentious. I don’t buy into the mid-century silliness of the workplace evolving to become a gestalt over-mind and other such utopian pseudo-science. I tend to take the exact opposite position. In fact, this was one of the more popular topics that I taught in my Senior Leaders’ Professional Development course back in the 2000s. This passage in particular from one of my favourite textbooks [1] always inspired an entire day’s enthusiastic group discussion:

‘… the coming of [Harvard Business School’s Organizational Behavior program]’s realism amounted to a rebalancing, not a dismissal of [Elton] Mayo’s fuzzy mix of therapy and management, healing and productivity. If anything, OB’s ostensible tough-mindedness lent credibility to Mayo’s soft ideas, his underestimation of both the necessity and danger of top-down power, his idea of the manager as therapist with the accompanying temptation of psychological manipulation, his hyper fear of conflict, and his utopian claim that the interests of employer and employee can be merged in a workplace where the principal reward is not money but organic community.’

FriendsIf this is your vision of a ‘good’ workplace, we may have incompatible strategic visions. 

There’s so much delicious content to unpack there that I could spent probably an entire year’s worth of columns worrying it like a terrier with a ragdoll. I won’t … probably … but I’d love to. As a business (and military!) leader, I’ve run up against a lot of Mr. Mayo’s indirect academic offspring. Managers unwilling to confront their workers’ misbehaviour or their bosses’ irrational demands. Managers who arrogantly think they can ‘trick’ workers into meeting goals through slogans, soft incentives, and psychological manipulation. Managers who earnestly believe that a harmonious team environment is more desirable than a productive or even a functionally useful one. All nonsense.

It’s been thirty years since I first started studying organizational culture and sociology, and I’ve yet to lose my love of it. Trying to understand why people act as they do in the workplace still fascinates me. I think that’s why my observations, analysis, and recommendations here on Business Reporter tend to drift from one category to another. I’m consistently writing about the same subject, but I’m often trying to attack it from different angles to ry and help make sense of it.

For all practical purposes, a workplace is a bunch of people performing some sort of labour to achieve an outcome that some customer(s) will pay enough for to perpetuate itself. In almost all examples, a workplace has at least someone holding power over the others. This deliberate power imbalance inevitably leads to strife, anxiety, confusion, inefficiency, and waste. It’s a necessary (but naturally stressful) construct.

I’ll take it a step further and argue that Carl von Clausewitz’s famous ‘fog and friction of war’ theory holds equally true in all human endeavours, not just battlefield dynamics. This includes all manner of workplaces and business. Just swap out ‘manager’ for ‘general’ and ‘business’ for ‘war,’ and you have a pretty accurate handle on the clumsy, confusing, and often contradictory nature of people coming together in groups to make a living. To paraphrase Carl:

‘A manager is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he [or she] is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging ...’

War Concept. Military silhouettes fighting scene on war fog sky background, World War Soldiers Silhouettes Below Cloudy Skyline At night. Attack scene. Armored vehicles. Tanks battleFor the record, the ‘fog of war’ concept has been around far longer than we’ve been employing big, smoky-belching canon and firearms. 

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? Sort of like how things run in pretty much every dysfunctional office environment. This isn’t a coincidence; it’s probably always been this way and always will be, since people – not perfect machines – are the inextricable heart of every business. People are complicated enough as individuals. Assemble people into groups and you magnify that individual complexity to dizzying levels. Hardly a surprise, then, that many experienced business people fervently don’t want to be made supervisors!

All that being said, I adore this topic. I think that everything about it is equally frustrating and mesmerizing. Why do people do what they do, especially when it seems like they’re working to undermine their own self-interest? Why do people put so much effort into making their own lives unnecessarily intolerable? What will it take for a leader to stifle the counterproductive drama and get things done? I figure that if we can unravel the answers to these questions, then we can all start to make better decisions and, in turn, create workplaces that people actually want to be a part of. That’s the ultimate objective, anyway.

That same academic curiosity is what got me interested in cybersecurity early on during the first Dot Com bubble. Everything about the players in a security problem – the attackers, the defenders, the victims, and the poor souls caught in the middle – everything about the people part of the problem hinges on those same thorny human behaviour problems. Why do people do things that put themselves and their organisation at unnecessary risk? How do we convince people to follow rules and practices that reduce exposure and risk? Why is it that some people can’t perceive an obvious danger? Or, worse, why do people petulantly engage in obviously destructive behaviour? The struggle to answer these questions is a full-time job in and of itself. [2] More importantly, every discovery made in the name of security helps provide insight into the general human condition. It’s great.

I know that this seems like a ton of author’s exposition, or a joke setup that doesn’t seem to lead to a punchline. My motivation for writing this column came out of an interview that I sat during the week leading up to Christmas. As I was reviewing my notes, one of the comments that I’d scribbled down was ‘First interviewer asked what I do for a living, not why I do it.’ That wasn’t meant as a ‘ding’ on the interviewer; rather, it reminded me that getting at the whys in a person’s life is often the single most important exchange you can have in in a job interview, a promotion board, or even a disciplinary hearing.

No mercy for ineffective workTelling the termination board that your latest shenanigans should be ignored because you once did an unrelated impressive thing once isn’t going to save your hide.

Why matters. Self-awareness, honest reflection, cogent motivation, and a clear explanation of desire all matter more to a candidate’s long-term viability and team compatibility than past experiences or accomplishments ever will (especially when it comes to leadership billets). Being able to articulate who you are, what you want, and where you stand on contentious issues makes or breaks you as a potential team member. What I’ve written here is the sort of elucidation that I want to hear from the people aspiring to join my team. As such, it’s what I expect the people interviewing me would want to know as well, which is why I was so taken aback with the question never came up.

Why you believe what you do and why certain things matter to you tells me more about how you’ll lead, motivate, and inspire others than probably anything else on your CV. The thing is, most of the candidates that I’ve interviewed couldn’t articulate those pivotal ‘why’ statements; they’d either never thought about the subject enough to assemble an argument, or else they hadn’t invested the time to craft and hone a pitch that accurately conveyed their message. So, to help, I’ve thrown together this example in the hopes that it’ll inspire others.

That’s the last major point that I want to make: I don’t write these columns to get rich or famous. [3] I do this in order to help people be more effective and competitive in whatever passes for their workplace. People like you. Hopefully, something I’ve written today will help to give you an edge in your next interview. I guarantee that it’ll help impress me if you show up to interview and have crafted your own thought-provoking why? argument(s) ... No matter what side of the table you’re on.


[1] Quoted from Chapter 5, page 159 of James Hoopes’ False Prophets.

[2] I really, really like the Security Awareness field.

[3] As awesome as it would be for this to be my full-time job, I haven’t been able to convince my editor to formally stand up a full-time North American bureau … yet.

Title Allusion: Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832 Book)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.