The One-Word Secret to Becoming an Inspiring Leader

When managing a team or supervising an individual, always talk about the ‘why.’
Your requests may be received more positively by giving employees a reason why. (Photo: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock)

When you’re a small business owner, leadership is a big part of your job. Not only are you responsible for the success and wellbeing of your company, but you also have to inspire those who work for you to do their part so everything comes together perfectly.

But what makes someone a great leader? Regardless of your personality or management style, any leadership expert will tell you that communication is a critical skill for anyone in charge.

Alex Cavoulacos

“One of the secrets I’ve found in managing effectively is also one of the steps that managers skip most often. It’s making sure you always talk about the why.” -Alex Cavoulacos (Photo: Alex Cavoulacos)

“One of the secrets I’ve found in managing effectively is also one of the steps that managers skip most often. It’s making sure you always talk about the why,” said Alex Cavoulacos, founder and president of The Muse and co-author of “The New Rules of Work.”

Here’s the scoop on how taking the time to explain “why” can make you a better boss.

The power of a reason

In the 1970s, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer conducted an experiment by having people ask to break in line for use of a busy copy machine on a college campus. The researcher would approach a person in line and ask one of three questions:

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

While over half (60 percent) of subjects were willing to let the person cut ahead of them without providing any reason, when the “because” statement was added to request, subjects were far more likely (93 percent) to allow the person to take their spot in line. When the experiment was repeated with a larger copy project of 20 pages, only the “because I’m in a rush” reason resulted in compliance.

As a boss, you’re not required to justify every command you issue, but most people prefer to understand the reason they’ve been asked to do something. By explaining the “why” when you give instructions to your staff or ask someone for a favor, your request is more likely to be received positively.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Leadership More Authentic

Shared priorities

When you become more open and intentional about explaining the “why” behind your actions, decisions and requests as a boss, you give your staff a clearer understanding of your priorities.

“The reason you decided to go with A versus B is often that there was also something else going on that they didn’t have visibility into, which was relevant to your priorities,” said Cavoulacos. By providing more context, “you’re helping them connect the dots, learn more about how the business works and understand what is more or less important to you.”

Related: How Bosses Can Improve Relationships With Employees

Better decisions and ideas


During brainstorm sessions and team meetings, explaining the ‘why’ can create a feedback loop that results in more — and better — ideas. (Photo:

Making it clear what values are most important to you and being transparent about your thought process also teaches your team to make better decisions on their own and come up with more relevant suggestions and ideas.

“Once your team has more context and understands your priorities and why you make decisions, you’ve created a feedback loop,” Cavoulacos explained.

Say you’re brainstorming new marketing tactics for the summer and ask your team to share their ideas, for example. Taking time to explain why your last campaign performed poorly and what you want the new initiative to achieve will give them more insight into the big picture so they can suggest ideas that are in line with or complement your goals.

“You’re empowering your team to learn and do better next time, which is what management is all about,” she said.

Related: 10 Business Buzzwords It’s Time to Retire

Increased engagement

Another benefit of intentionally talking about the “why” with your staff is increased engagement and a more collaborative work environment. Instead of only giving your employees reasons, ask them to share their rationales with you, as well.

For instance, say you need to have a difficult conversation with a team member who has repeatedly been late to her shift. Share why it is very important for your business that she be on time, but also ask her to give a reason for her lack of punctuality. This will create a back-and-forth conversation and give you better insight into how to appropriately handle the situation.

“When done best, talking about the why ties your work and theirs back to a bigger goal, purpose, or mission, not just the task at hand,” said Cavoulacos. “This is what creates the internal motivation and desire to do the work at hand, which I’ve found leads to more creativity, thoughtfulness and ownership.”

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