What “Because We’ve Always Done it That Way” Really Means
Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in. ~Alan Alda
Questions. You know I love them. I’ve written about the fun and motivational side of the questions we ask ourselves … questions that cause us to think about our purpose, dreams and future.
Then there are the funny questions that for the most part really have no logical answer, but they make us smile and sometimes even prevent us from taking ourselves too seriously.
However there is another type of question that, on occasion, can result in responses ranging anywhere from extreme irritation to jaw-dropping revelation. This is the intrepid ‘why’ question that’s aimed beyond self. Why do we do things this way? Why can’t we try it this way for a change? If this is organizational policy, why am I not able to find it anywhere in the training or policy manual? And on it goes …
Too often those who dare ask this kind of “why?” question are treated to …
Because that’s just the way it’s done. We’ve always done it that way.
Let me give you an example by following the trail of a simple ‘why’ question.
There’s an old Thanksgiving story about a man who asks his wife why she always cuts the end off of the ham before cooking it. She says, that’s how I was taught – my mother has always done it that way. The next time he saw her, the man asks his mother-in-law why she always cuts the end off of a ham before cooking it. She looked at him, her response tinged with irritation at being questioned, said “well, my mother always did it that way, it was good enough for her, and it’s been good enough for my family all these years.”
Undeterred and now on a mission, the man some time later spoke to his wife’s grandmother and asked the ‘why’ question about her ham cooking method. She laughed and said, “Well, you know when the kids were young I had such a small stove and the only pan that would fit in it was too small for a whole ham, so I had to cut the end off just to be able to fit it in the pan.” Hum …
Often, especially in organizational structures, those who are persistent enough to explore further by pressing for clarification or specifics never receive a satisfactory answer.
Why you might ask … well, let’s take a look.
Top ten list* of the real meaning behind “But we’ve always done it this way.”
10. I haven’t got a clue why we do it this way. I never even thought about it before, but I’ll never admit that to you.
9. Good question …I never asked it and now wish that I had. As much as your question disturbs me I refuse to admit that out loud.
8. You again? Why are you trying to cause trouble? We like things the way they are. We will outlast you.
7. Can’t you see how busy I am? Why are you bothering me with things like this? The way we do things is good enough for everyone else, why isn’t it good enough for you?
6. You clearly don’t know how we do things around here. It has nothing to do with logic, fairness or openness.
5. If you were a team player you’d drop this right now, and just go along with us without asking any more annoying questions.
4. We don’t like questions. And right now I don’t like you for asking it.
3. Perhaps you believe that you have the right to ask questions… silly you.
2. Its working just fine the way it is. Leave it alone. Can we just move on now?
1. Sorry, you are obviously under the mistaken impression this is a democracy. Please, be nice and just do what you are told, the way that you are told to do it.
Be honest, you’ve probably entertained one or more of these internal responses yourself after being put on the spot with a ‘why’ question, right?
Hey, it’s human nature, and to be fair it’s important to make the distinction between a ‘why’ question asked because someone genuinely wants to understand how and why something is done the way it is; and repeatedly asking questions simply to get attention. A little harsh I know, but it happens.
The truth is when you look around, whether it’s work or in your personal life, you’ll probably find many processes that are done “because they’ve always been done that way” and of course not all habits and routines are bad. Without them we would have to consider every action we take as if we were doing it for the very first time.
The real value of being willing to ask (and answer!) ‘why’ questions is to periodically challenge the status quo … and that includes our own assumptions, habits and rituals.
At the very least when you ask a ‘why’ question you may learn something new of value; on the other hand it is also possible to learn something new by answering a ‘why’ question. Maybe the process is relevant, but certain information isn’t as readily available as it should be, or maybe the process is outdated.
You’ll never know until someone asks the question … why?
*Just want to give credit where credit is due for the Top Ten list. While I modified them quite a bit to take the ‘edge’ off, the original questions were created by George Torok at Articles for Professionals.
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