3 Things to Never Do When Asking for Help

Being an executive today is more challenging than ever. Today’s executive is swimming in a never-ending tsunami of information. Trying to spot a beacon of insight among the waves of data is extremely difficult. To put this challenge in perspective, a 2014 Study[1] by Bain & Company found that the number of communications executives receive has increased from fewer than 1,000 per year in the 1970s to over 30,000 per year in the 2010s.

To stay afloat and get ahead in today’s volatile environment, leaders need to become better architects of collaboration. After all, they’re on the hook to transform information into insight, and turn knowledge into wisdom. Attempting to operate as a lone wolf is no longer an option. Collaborating well is essential; it’s what enables a team to notice, flex, and respond to customer needs in real-time.

Leaders who are master collaborators are better equipped to solve complex problems, innovate, and continually adapt to a fast-changing business environment. And while the principle may seem simple, the practice is not easy. A challenge facing today’s leader is that useful information is scattered far and wide, and leaders are dependent on their teams to be willing and able to share their data for the good of the larger whole. If this sharing doesn’t happen, the whole thing falls apart. A recent study found that 96% of executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication as the main source of workplace failures.

To build teams and foster collaboration, leaders need to hone a supplementary skill: Asking for help. In the present-day workplace, a leader is only as good as their network. If you’re going to be successful leader today, you’re going to need to ask others for help. But the basic skill of making a request is not enough: how you go about asking for help can make or break your business relationships and impact your future results.

Here are three things to NEVER do when asking for help:

1. Be the Black Hole of Help

Rob is the CFO of a small consulting firm. He’s got a reputation within the finance department. Jake, the comptroller, described Rob this way:

Rob’s a ‘Black Hole.’ When he asks for something and you send it, you get no response. Nothing. Nada. No thank you, no acknowledgement, nothing. The first time it happened, I assumed there must have been some email glitch, that the server messed up, and he never got my message. But then it happened again. And again. It’s not a technical issue. It’s a Rob issue. It’s so rude, I tried to avoid interacting with him as much as I can.

“Black Holes” have an instant negative affect on the people around them. No one likes working with them, because they perpetually violate the first law of influence: The Law of Reciprocity. Humans are social creatures. We’re wired for mutual exchange. When we give something we expect something (even a quick “got it” or “thanks”) in return.

Black Holes work extremely hard to maintain their business status. It’s the only way they can deliver results. They’re constantly building new bridges of relationships, because they keep burning down the old ones.

2. Ask and Then Discard

Betsy is the Director of HR for an IT company. Megan, a learning specialist, described a recent interaction she had with Betsy this way:

Betsy had a presentation to give to the Executive Committee on the most recent Employee Engagement survey. Betsy complains how the ExCom is constantly dumping more work on her, and she reached out for help. She was completely freaked out that the ExCom would pick her apart in the meeting.

She asked if I’d host some additional focus groups and gather more qualitative data that she could present at the meeting. I did. I spent two days of time on it. I compiled it, condensed it, and cleaned it up to get it C-Suite ready.

The day after her presentation, I asked Betsy how things went. She said it went great.

What I didn’t find out for another couple of weeks (and not from Betsy) was that she never used any of the work that I did. She ended up using some other data. She completely wasted my time. I’m still upset just thinking about it.

When you ask someone for help, you create an opportunity for connection and motivation. Two of the strongest drivers of human performance are contributing to something greater than oneself, and having a clear sense of purpose. Let’s face it: people work harder when something matters to them. If you ask people to do things for you and then toss their work aside, you send a blunt message that you really don’t care about them. If, for some reason, you are forced to leave their work “on the cutting room floor,” at the very least make sure to give them context along with an appreciative apology.

3. Poaching Praise

Ted is the former CEO of a financial services company. Ted had a habit that was so nasty, it incited a mutiny within his Executive Team. The habit ultimately cost him his job.

Ted’s would ask people for help, but when asked about specifics about the work, he’d take credit for all the work that got done. To the outside world, Ted made it seem like he’d done everything himself. On the flip side, whenever a problem arose, he would be the first to point the finger and blame others for their failings.

Poaching praise from others is one of the quickest ways to make enemies and tick people off. Where “black holes” that don’t reply might be merely clueless or lacking in social skills, praise poachers are thought of as intentionally malicious.

The irony is that leaders who poach praise don’t realize the amazing opportunity they’re missing. If you get to be known as someone who shares recognition and gives credit where credit is due, team members will become your greatest allies and fiercely loyal to you. They will be more than happy to help out again in the future.

[1] https://hbr.org/2014/05/your-scarcest-resource