What Instructs, but Why Can Inspire

Communication is important. I think nearly every person, at every level, in every company would agree with this. However, how we communicate and, even more importantly, what we communicate is harder to agree upon. I can’t speak for everybody, but as a registered nurse for the past 18 years I can speak to how I, and others like me, feel about such things. I would wager that this is true of not only nurses, but of many people. When communicating to people you lead, it’s not enough to tell them WHAT. Often times, you need to also tell them WHY.

It’s how we’re trained.

When it comes to RNs, we are trained not simply to look at the what, but to look at the why. For instance, if we have a patient with a low heart rate, it is important to understand WHY their heart rate might be low. Knowing this can help you to determine how concerned to be. For instance, if this is an athlete, then a lower heart rate could be expected. Or, perhaps it’s normal for this patient. Or, maybe it’s because of a medication the patient is on and is actually the desired effect. Or, maybe it’s a serious problem. Regardless knowing the why, helps you determine the severity of the situation.

Knowing the why also helps you to determine what action to take. For instance, if a patient’s blood pressure is low because they’re bleeding, then you need to stop the bleeding. Fixing the blood pressure without addressing the bleeding isn’t going to do that patient any good/ They will still bleed to death.

The bottom line, at least with nurses, is that we are TRAINED to ask WHY, at least as much as we ask WHAT.

“Because I said so,” doesn’t work.

When I was a kid there were times that I would be told to do something and I would ask WHY. Heck, that’s the second word many kids learn. Right after “NO”. In many of those cases, the answer I got was, “Because I said so.” I’ve had this same exact conversation with my own kids on many occasions. Many times, with my kids, this is all the answer they need.

But, I’m not a child.

In many instances, this answer is enough for a child. As I have told my son, he needs to prove a willingness and ability to obey first. Then, as he gets older, I will be open to explaining the reasons for some of the things I tell him to do. My son is now 16 and there are times when I do explain it. Still there are times when I need him simply to obey, because I’m his father and he is a child.

But, I’m not a child.

The fact is that I am not a child. I’m an adult. In fact, at 43 years old, I’m middle aged, as painful as that is to admit. The truth is that your employees are also adults. In fact, in the case of nurses, respiratory therapists, radiology techs, and many others these are intelligent, college educated adults. For these reasons, a “because I said so” approach is seldom going to be effective.

Certainly, it would be a very rare instance, or person that would actually say to an employee “because I said so”. At least not in those words. However, the way that many managers and administrators communicate with staff, or more accurately, how they DON’T communicate, leads to a “because I said so” perception from the staff.

There have certainly been instances, as an ER charge nurse, that I had to look at someone under my lead and say “Just do it!” In those cases I almost always went back to that person, after the fact, and explained the WHY behind the WHAT. Still, this was not a common occurrence, nor was it the general stance I took when communicating with my team.

Sometimes people need to just do what their told.

In many businesses, especially in medicine, there are times when people just need to do what they are told. During my time in the ER there were many such instances. Even now, in the outpatient cancer center I work in, there are times when people just need to follow instructions. If not bad things happen. In some cases, people could die if someone doesn’t do what they are told.

Still, in both environments, the moments when this is true are few compared to the moments when an explanation is possible, and perhaps even warranted.

What instructs, by WHY can inspire.

We have to ask ourselves what our goal is. Do we simply want people to do what their told? If so, then continue telling them what to do and withholding the why. However, if you want to build a team with a strong desire to do what is right, then you HAVE to give them the why as well.

If you want to build a culture within your business, department, team, or even family where the WHAT gets done without you having to be there, then you HAVE to explain the why.

Consider this: the instructions that come with a piece of furniture from Ikea have the power to instruct someone on how to assemble that piece of furniture. Heck, the word INSTRUCT is in the the word INSTRUCTions. If the goal is simply to instruct, then that’s enough. In the case of these instruction that is the entire goal. Then, when the furniture is assembled, the project is over and the instructions are no longer needed. There is no need to inspire because the goal has been reached.

So, where does the inspiration come from?

Keeping in mind the Ikea furniture, let’s go back a few steps. I know this will be shocking to some people, but I have never set foot in an Ikea store. (GASP). Still, I have a pretty good picture of what it looks like. The entire store is designed to inspire. Furniture and accessories are carefully arranged to inspire. They are designed to help you see the possibilities of this furniture and these accessories. In fact, the purchase is generally made because of the INSPIRATION experienced.

Once inspired by the fancy arrangement at the Ikea store, you are not only willing, but EAGER to follow the instructions. You see, when the WHAT follows the WHY, when the instructions follow the inspiration, then getting people to do the what becomes easier. In fact, when WHAT follows WHY, and people really understand the WHY, then they will often be left wanting to follow the WHAT.

So, how can you begin to communicate and train the WHY today so that the people you lead will do the WHAT. After all, isn’t that what you want and need from them?

Husband, father, pastor, nurse, freelance writer, overall nice guy. "I believe the healthcare experience can be great for patients, families, and all members of the healthcare team." - Matt Norman

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