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The 5 WHYs of Career Decision-Making

In our work lives, we are constantly asking questions, evaluating our options, and making decisions. This swirl of considerations can be overwhelming at times, and with so many questions to ask it can be hard to know which is more important.

The most important career question you’ll ever ask is only three letters long, but packs one heck of a punch. tweet it

The question is…why? It’s such an important question; I recommend you ask it five times over any time you’re making any major decision at work or in life.

I learned the “5 Whys” tool from Martha Beck, a coaching mentor of mine. Here’s how it works. You identify a stressful thought or an action related to your career or business (e.g., I should quit my job), and then you drill down the rationale behind that thought by asking why five times, going deeper each time.

I use this exercise to help my clients get a better understanding of their thought processes – to determine whether the thought is true, or is simply misguided. You start with a thought or inclination, and with each why you drill down closer to the motivating assumption. Let’s try:

I should apply for a promotionWhy? Because other people are going to apply. Why does that matter? Because I don’t want someone else to get it over me. Why? Because I don’t want to be in a lower position. Why? I don’t want to have no power. Why? I’m afraid I’ll be taken advantage of.

Aha! You’ve uncovered some valuable information. This appears to be a fear-based decision.

It could also go like this:

I should apply for a promotion. Why? It’s the perfect job for me! Why? I’d love that job. Why? I’m good at all of those things. Why? I have experience with those activities. Why? I’ve volunteered for those types of projects before.

You can see that the motivating thoughts in these two examples are quite different. Let’s try another common one:

My business needs more social media presence. Why? Everyone else is on Twitter. Why does that matter? A business needs to be on Twitter to be successful. Why? Because that’s where the customers are. Why? Because they’re interacting with other people. Why? Because it’s fun and social.

You get the gist. In this example, the person’s thinking might be correct or misguided, depending on the type of business, target market, and marketing strategy. If you operate a dry cleaning business, for example, something like Twitter may be far less relevant than for someone whose services – say, outdoor adventure travel – translate well to social engagement. Dig down to where the seed of your thought is planted and evaluate it. tweet it

Note that in both of the above examples, the word should or need is present. Pay close attention to any business or career decision that is driven by a forced or constraining undertone. In the coaching community, we call these types of thoughts “shackles on” – thoughts that feel restrictive and binding. Are you simply trying to keep up with the Jones’, or are you making a well-thought-out decision for your business? The former suggests a panicked and potentially irrational decision, while the latter is more likely to be a good choice.

Doing anything that feels “shackles on,” without being in line with your company’s strategy and values, is a shouldy way of thinking (say it out loud). Steer clear of this type of decision-making. Asking why five times over is especially helpful for sorting out anxiety-inducing thoughts, and it works just as well for personal decisions as it does for professional ones. Try this exercise when you’re struggling with any decision that stresses you out. Better yet, have a colleague or friend take you through it so you can answer aloud. You’ll be able to peg your rationale as either wise or misguided the moment it leaves your lips.


Published at Forbes.

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