Why do you do the work you do?


I asked this question the other day in a consultation. It was the first question that came to me. Since then I reflected on this question.  I realised that I ask a lot of people why they do the work they do.


Because when we don’t know why we do the work we do then we are effectively unconsciously going through the motions. We show up in physical form. We do what we are trained to do. We go home.  Yet we likely disengage, miss out on really adding value and haphazardly enjoy our experience of work.  We miss out on a sense of purpose that drives our actions and behaviours.  This lack of awareness can lead to less constructive behaviours and states such as blaming others, not taking personal responsibility, losing motivation, frustration, low self esteem and an array of non supportive emotions.

This question is also very different from 'what do you do', the safer option when getting to know someone. The question usually elicits a safe and sometimes pre rehearsed answer.  What you do is a matter of fact. Why you do is a matter of inspiration.

Yet when the question of why is asked there is so much more possible. For one you can see it in a person’s eyes. Yes you can tell who knows and who doesn’t. There is passion. There is excitement. Or there is dread and avoidance. Energy, no energy. You get it right?

In asking the why, my intention is to get past the practical and logical response and go to the heart. Yes I want to get to the heart of why you do the work you do!

So what’s the big deal about this why question anyway?

When we do know why we do the work we do then we are consciously engaging, fully present, committed and contributing at a fuller level.  In other words we are self aware of our purpose and follow through.  When we dare to ask the question why then we also open ourselves up to finding more meaning in our work. To know why we work is one aspect of being a conscious leader whether of self or others.  The answer forms the foundation for being and links into the broader understanding of who we are at work.  The answer to this question also gives us clues to our level of satisfaction and where we may wish to explore further.

The answer to our why is not a judgement opportunity.

Knowing why you work is the goal, not deciding whether your reason is right or wrong, better or worse. We all have unique, personal and inherent motivations for why we work.  We are all at different stages of our career, have different needs, desires and values. What is interesting and purposeful to one may not be to another. What is important though is to not go about work in a mindless robotic fashion.  Knowing why helps you focus on your work and get the most out of your experience.

For example. A person is in between roles in their planned career.  This person takes a part time job in retail to earn some extra money.  The job is unrelated to their career choice. It is something to do.  I would still want to know why this job and not another. What makes retail more interesting for this person compared to hospitality for another? What makes an office job right for one and an outdoor job right for another?

What I notice about other people's why.

There appears to be correlation with willingness to share and degree of clarity. The more a person is conscious about why they do what they do the easier it is to articulate. It also becomes evident that the clearer a person is the more likely they will share.  People who are conscious about why they work also tend to be more conscious overall of other aspects of themselves and the way they work.  There is a higher degree of self awareness which is well documented as a cornerstone to effective leadership.

What if answering why is too abstract?

Sometimes people can’t get to the answer as the question of why is too abstract and direct. So I go another route. Instead I invite a person to go back and remember what it was like the first day he/she started in their current role, job, company etc.  I then ask why did you choose to be in this role? job? company?   I accept obvious and practical answers – eg need money, have a mortgage etc.  Yet I then go beyond these responses too.  I want the fully engaged, higher level answer. I want the deeper response. I want people to reconnect to that excitement, the thrill, the joy of a new job.  If this is not possible then I at least know where a person is at in terms of clarity and consciousness about their work.

Can you ask this question?

So this is where it gets interesting.  Where and when do you ask this question not only of yourself but of others?  To start let’s say you do the work on yourself. Great but then what?  If you are a leader you can ask your team. If you are a sales person you can ask  your customers. If you are a team member you can ask your boss. And if you want to be like me you can ask random strangers you meet.  Ok you don’t have to be like me.

No matter the way the question is asked the value is in knowing the answer.  The reward is increased consciousness and the possibility that you may actually change the way you see your work.  

For to stay conscious about why we work is one key way to navigate through all the ups and downs and uncertainty we face every day in our work.  Ultimately it is the best way to also get the reward – all kinds.

So…..Why do you do the work you do?  Send me an email. I really do want to know!


Jenn Shallvey