High on the list of words you’re not supposed to use at work is “why?” After all, constantly questioning your bosses will make you seem like a combative employee who’s unwilling to play by the rules, and in most situations, it’s best to keep your head down and do you work.
Except when it does pay to use “why?” In a recent Daily Muse post appropriately titled “4 Times Asking “Why?” at Work Will Benefit You,” writer Katie Douthwaite Wolf shares a handful of situations where it actually behoves you to speak up and question authority. “Used appropriately,” Wolf says, “that one word can make a difference in your productivity, happiness, and career advancement—particularly in these four situations.”
The first situation is when you don’t agree with a company process. As Wolf explains, companies invest a lot of time and money thinking about and documenting how things ought to get done. If you think certain processes are inefficient, everyone stands to benefit by your saying something. Best case: The company implements changes based on your question. Even if that doesn’t happen, you might receive a satisfying explanation regarding why things are the way are.
Another time it’s OK to use “why?” is whenever you’re asked to do something that doesn’t fall within the parameters of your job description. Say you’re in sales, and the boss wants you to help out with customer support. Or worse yet, he or she enlists you to drop what you’re doing and help plan an upcoming party or trip. Wolf suggests following your “why? with something like, “I’m not sure this aligns with my role—can you help me understand why I’ve been assigned this task?” Again, you’ll either see a positive change or receive clarification about why these new tasks are suddenly yours.
The third “why?”-worthy situation is receiving negative feedback on a project you felt good about. When you get something back with a ton of edits and revisions, and they’re really not what you expected, it makes sense to question why your original work was deemed unsatisfactory. “It’s only when you truly understand that feedback that you can make the necessary changes,” Wolf writes.
Finally, Wolf says you’re free to fling around the old W-word when you don’t get something you want — i.e. a promotion or raise you made a strong case for. If you don’t ask “why?” you might simply vow to “do better” in the future, but that only makes sense if you know what “better” means. If someone else got a promotion instead of you because he or she spent the last year taking extra classes or doing something that made them a stronger candidate, you’ll surely want to know — for peace of mind, and for the sake of future planning.