Five Reasons Teammates Don’t Ask for Help – and Three Ways to Overcome It

By Dave Blum

 

During a recent teambuilding scavenger hunt I was leading, a participant rushed up to me – exasperated – and exclaimed “I just don’t understand this clue!”   (see below)

 

 

So, what have you tried so far?”, I responded.

 

“Well, the pictures clearly refer to the 12 days of Christmas. I tried organizing them by the order of the 12 days and then reading the letters below each box, but the message made no sense at all.  I also tried lining up all the images in color order, but that didn’t work either.  I’m stuck!”

 

“Well, what do you do at work when you’re stuck?”

 

“Go to the internet?   Keep slugging away?”

 

“What else?”

 

[Shrug]

 

If this scenario sounds at all familiar to you, you’re not alone.    In workplaces across the land, employees are laboring away, alone in their cubicles, trying to solve tasks that are just beyond the scope of their abilities, terrified of ASKING FOR HELP.

 

Why is this?

 

Here are five of my favorite pet theories:

 

#1: People are stubborn.   All of the most successful people I know possess a high degree of grit.   When faced with a difficult challenge, they simply don’t give up — even when It’s clear that they’ve run clean out of fresh ideas.  Obviously, you don’t want people to throw up their hands in defeat after 5 minutes, running to their boss for guidance.  Nevertheless, there is a point when solitary work can reach a point of diminishing returns.

 

#2:  People want to show that they’re trustworthy:   Among the many key trust behaviors – which include sincerity, competency, caring, vulnerability and transparency — perhaps the most vital of them all is reliability.  In other words, a reliable person is someone who does what they say they’re going to do.  If you declare to your team leader that you will take on a task, you don’t stop until the task is done.    That’s what a trustworthy person would do!

 

#3:  People are afraid of losing status.  Sad to say, in many organizations, to fail is to lose status. In other words, if you can’t perform the task assigned to you, you’ll immediately look bad in the eyes of your teammates.  (And who wants to look incompetent, stupid or weak?)

 

#4:  Competition is baked built into the culture:  So often, organizations pit employees against employees in a race for awards and compensation.   In such an environment, asking for help is equivalent to colluding with the enemy – because everyone is the enemy!  And failure can have immediate, negative consequences, including penalties and even demotion.

 

#5:  It’s just faster and more efficient to work alone:  As mentioned above, people are eager to prove their competence and trustworthiness – which is great.   All too often, however, such folks don’t trust the abilities of their teammates.  “I can do this easier and faster myself!  Showing it to another person will just muddy the waters!  I’ll figure it out!”

 

 

So what can we do to overcome these five mindsets –getting people asking for assistance when appropriate?

 

How about trying any of these three strategies?:

 

1) Set a time limit for solitary work:    In the scavenger hunt example above, I might say to the team, “It seems like some of your teammates are struggling with their clues.   Why don’t you set your clocks for 10 minutes, at which point solitary-work time is over and everyone must come back together to re-assess each challenge as a group.”     Limit the soloist time—for everyone’s benefit.

 

2) Pair people up from the start:  Who says work has to be done alone at all?   Why not create dyads (or even triads) from the start, with scheduled group re-assessments?

 

3) Remove the competition:  So many of the status issues arise from an excessively competitive organizational culture, where success is rewarded and failure is penalized.  This is not to say that failure should be taken lightly.  The popular mantra of “Fail Faster” misses the point.    No one should ever set out to fail!    The goal, really, should be minimize internal competition while embracing resilience and celebrating the ability to bounce back and learn from mistakes.

 

In the end, it all comes down to trust.

 

  • Do you trust yourself to take on difficult tasks?
  • Do you trust that your teammates have complementary (but different) skills and perspectives to draw upon when you’re stuck?
  • Do you trust that the organizational culture will not penalize or castigate you for asking for assistance

 

It’s a tricky balance, and it has to start from the top down.

 

This holiday season, may we all ask for help freely and courageously, and offer it as well.     The days of being alone and puzzled are numbered.

 

So how about that puzzle clue above?  Click on the video below to hear the answer.

 

 

 

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