Why Asking for Help Is the Most Important Behavior for Your Team

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

The ultimate trust-builder and collaboration-enhancer

We’ve all known that person. You like them. They’re friendly and smart. But you hesitate to let them take difficult tasks. You’d rather they stick to things you know they can handle — the kinds of assignments they’ve been successful with in the past.

We’ve all got someone at the other end of the spectrum, too. The person that, no matter what it is, you know they’ll be successful. They’ll find a way, figure it out, and produce great results every time.

It hasn’t been a matter of intelligence or competency for the people in my life that have fallen into these buckets. It’s been entirely about trust. One group lacks it; the other has it.


Like a stretchy waistband

What is it about those folks we trust so much? How can we be so sure they’ll do a great job with new and difficult assignments?

It’s rooted in past performance. They’ve demonstrated an ability to figure things out and succeed. More importantly, though, is that we’re confident they have the right safeguards in place. We know they’ll do the right things to keep us comfortable as they work through challenges and arrive at a solution.

They’ll discuss the plan beforehand, solicit feedback as they go, review when they’re done, and speak up if they get stuck along the way. These are all ways of asking for help — and they all build trust.


The number one thing that earns trust

Brené Brown uses a great metaphor for trust: the marble jar. The concept is borrowed from her daughter’s classroom system for promoting good behavior. When the class does something good, a marble is earned. When bad things happen, marbles are removed.

It’s the same with trust. When you do something trustworthy, you earn a marble. Damage trust, however, and risk losing a handful.

So, what’s the best way to fill the jar? In her book Dare to Lead, Brown shares the following observation from her research:

We asked a thousand leaders to list marble-earning behaviors — what do your team members do that earns your trust? The most common answer: asking for help. When it comes to people who do not habitually ask for help, the leaders we polled explained that they would not delegate important work to them because the leaders did not trust that they would raise their hands and ask for help.

It makes sense, right? If someone is doing something unfamiliar — something they’ve maybe never done before — and we don’t think they’ll seek guidance or check-in as they go, it’s natural to worry about the outcome. How could you not be concerned?


Everyone gets a marble

Think about the marble jar for this person that you’re uncomfortable with, that you don’t quite trust. How full is it? Probably not very.

Luckily, the solution to an empty jar is simple: start adding marbles.

When you don’t trust someone, part of the challenge is that they need to be the ones to earn marbles. Don’t worry, though, because there’s a wonderful, marble-earning solution for that, too! Ask them for help.

It takes courage and vulnerability to acknowledge a lack of trust in a relationship, particularly with someone you’ve known for a long time. It doesn’t need to be awkward, though. You don’t need to say, “I don’t trust you,” which can be harsh, ambiguous, and defense-triggering.

Instead, focus on promoting specific, trust-building behaviors. Suggest reviewing a plan before getting started. Tell them you’re happy to provide feedback at any point. Ask them to report on the status and offer help if they’re stuck. Give them space, but let them know you’re in it with them. Supporting a colleague in these ways is sure to earn you a lot of marbles.


The ultimate trust-builder

Asking for help is an underrated and insanely powerful tool. Look beyond the obvious, immediate benefits like getting your question answered. When you review a plan and get input before starting, mistakes are prevented before they occur. Soliciting feedback and double-checking your thinking improves quality and creates opportunity.

And, all the while, you’re creating a trusting, collaborative environment.

The benefits don’t end there, though. Asking questions demonstrates vulnerability and humility. It’s a signal of self-awareness, an admission that you don’t know everything. It signals to others that it’s okay to ask questions. People will be less afraid of judgment and less likely to judge themselves.

Trust is important, and asking for help is an easy, straightforward way to develop a lot. Don’t save it as a last resort. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to fill your jar. Cite specific ask-for-help behaviors missing in your interactions with others. Make asking for help habitual, so it comes naturally when help is needed most — when stakes are high and mistakes costly.

A team that trusts deeply and actively supports itself is capable of incredible things — and all it takes is for members to buy in on asking for help.


This article was originally published on The Startup on January 21, 2021.


Interested in learning more? This article was inspired by Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. Check it out! Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon.

How I Learned to Be More Decisive and Stop Trying to Please Everyone

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash

CONFESSIONS OF A CONSENSUS-SEEKER

I used to think my ability to get everybody to agree was a strength. I have strong opinions, I’m competitive, and it’s not enough to have my opponent concede when debating a topic. I need them to agree with me — to believe what I believe. This served me well early in my career, and my fiery conviction and the resulting success allowed me to rise into leadership positions.

Honestly, even as a team lead this approach worked pretty well. Looking back, I think the turning point was when I became the manager of two teams. That’s when I no longer had the capacity to be “in it” with the team on every assignment. That’s when I hit a wall with my consensus-seeking.


The Deadliest Slide at the Playground

As a team lead, I did the best I could. Of course, I didn’t really know what I was doing and was mostly making it up as I went. That’s not to say I didn’t try or that I did a bad job. It’s just that I’m a learn-by-doing sort of person, so even though I’d read and done research on what it meant to be a good boss, it took some time and experience for concepts to set in.

The pattern continued as I moved into management. I wanted to be a “manager of the people” — to empower the team, and to give them a voice and sense of ownership. But they didn’t always agree among themselves about what needed to be done or how to do it. (Who’da guessed?) On top of that, I had my own opinions about what was best. This is where consensus-seeking started to be a problem.

The team would go on and on about a problem and then, just as they’d be coming to a conclusion, I’d weigh in with my 2 cents and reset the whole conversation. You know the big slide in the board game Chutes and Ladders? The one right toward the end that basically takes you back to the beginning? It was kinda like that.

And, because I needed that consensus, I’d keep the debate going as long as people continued to disagree. I just felt like, if we could all understand each other’s perspectives, we could find a solution we all agreed on.

I knew it was a problem. I could feel the team spinning, and we were spending more time coming up with plans than it would take to execute them. Feedback from the team provided clear supporting evidence in my performance reviews, too.

Could be more decisive. It’s good to listen, but sometimes the team just needs someone to choose. (paraphrasing)

Message received. I wasn’t surprised, though. I knew it was coming, but it still stung a little to be forced to acknowledge my shortcoming in a more official way.


Melancholy and the Infinite Debate

Analysis paralysis was certainly a key problem caused by my consensus-seeking. We’d talk and talk and talk about a topic or design, then reserve ourselves to continue the discussion in the next meeting. It was exhausting.

But, having no decision and pressure to make progress, the team would soldier on, with fatigue from the endless debate taking its toll. Even if it was my idea that “won,” it didn’t feel like winning. My effort to make everybody happy had done the opposite — everyone was miserable!

That gave way to the second major issue: lack of commitment. With so much discussion, people would lose track of what we were even trying to accomplish. Or, worse, they’d stop caring. I was mentally beating them into submission, and they just wanted it to end.

Team members would shake their heads and ask, “So, what are we doing?” They had no energy and just wanted to get on with it. It’s a real feelsbad moment to look into the defeated eyes of your team and explain that you’re just going to do the thing that you all talked about so long ago.


Can we all agree that consensus is horrible?

My a-ha moment came while reading Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The main character, Kathryn, is speaking and says the following:

“Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something and consensus comes about quickly and naturally, well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.”

It feels dumb and obvious, but I literally stopped and thought, Oh no. That was it, that was my problem. I continued reading.

“…some teams get paralyzed by their need for complete agreement, and their inability to move beyond debate.”

Yep, that was us. I was worried that people would be upset by not having their idea picked, so instead, I chose to pummel them into having the same idea. Reading about my own behavior in the context of the book was reassuring, to know that the bad thing I was doing was prolific enough to be addressed in a novel about the bad things we do. Still, not a great feeling to know that I had stepped into a common pitfall.

I always tell my teams that I’d rather have a problem we know the solution to than one we don’t, though, and this was one of those cases.

In the same chapter, another character speaks up about “disagree and commit” which is a popular idea that’s been written and talked about by many people, including Jeff Bezos. The concept is simple: it’s okay to disagree, but once the decision is made, everyone commits to it.

Certainly, that’s the philosophy I need to embrace, I thought. The hard part about decision-making was the fear of being wrong. I needed consensus because, if we all agreed and were wrong, we’d be wrong together. I didn’t want to force my decision on the team to have it rubbed in my face later by bitter and spiteful colleagues.

Because they’d be bitter and spiteful… Right?


A Breathtaking Detour

Making decisions requires a constructive environment filled with trust and communication, and my consensus-seeking didn’t provide that. I felt like we needed to talk things through because people would be upset if we didn’t do it their way. And it wore them down. Instead of looking for the best solution, they were looking for a way out.

However, it turns people don’t need to get their way to be happy. They need to feel heard. Having a voice makes us feel safe, like we’re in control. We want to know that if we call out danger, the team will steer away from it. Similarly, if we know a safe path, the whole team benefits from taking it.

Imagine you have plans for dinner at a restaurant with a friend. You and your friend have many choices for how to get there. You can take highways or backroads. You can drive yourselves or take public transportation. You can go separately or together. There are a few tradeoffs with each decision, but for the most part, they’re inconsequential.

Now, let’s say you know about some construction on one of the roads. You tell your friend to avoid that route because of significant delays, but they take it anyway and show up super late. You’d probably be upset, right?

Conversely, if they show up on time, you probably don’t care which specific path they took to get there. Maybe the same construction takes them through a scenic part of town, so your friend left early to enjoy it. You wouldn’t mind that they ignored your advice. It wouldn’t prevent you from enjoying each other’s company and having a good time — it might even give you something to talk about!

It’s the same with most team decisions. If you can agree on what you’re trying to accomplish, listen to everybody’s input, and make a reasonable decision, it doesn’t usually matter which specific path is chosen. What matters is that you get to where you’re going.


The Destination vs. The Journey

We’ve all heard the popular adage about road trips: it’s about the journey, not the destination. The idea is that the experiences you’ll have on the way to your destination will outweigh the ones you’ll have once you arrive. The point of these sorts of trips is usually to have experiences, and the journey is long and thus provides many experiences, so there’s truth to the statement.

When you have several options to choose from, you’ll often find yourself in one of two buckets. Choices will be equal or have tradeoffs. When all things are equal, it’s like meeting your friend at a restaurant. It probably doesn’t matter. Pick and move on. Most decisions have tradeoffs with multiple factors being influenced to different degrees, though, and that’s what makes them so tricky.

The reason they’re difficult is that people have different values. The best decision for me is different than the best decision for someone else, and neither of us is wrong — we just have different values. For example, one of us may value speed to market whereas the other values robustness of features. This is sort of a destination-vs-journeyquestion all in itself! Is it better to reach your destination quickly to benefit from more time or go a bit slower and arrive more prepared?

The question to ask yourself is, what are you trying to accomplish? This is why it’s so important for leaders and stakeholders to set goals and priorities: to enable the team to make decisions.

But, even if all that fails, there’s some good news. In the absence of a clear winner, you’re somewhat back to the all-things-equal scenario. There is no right or wrong when the deciding factor is subjectivity, so choose and move on.


The only losing move is not to choose.

As a former consensus-seeker, I hope I’ve said enough to convince you — to make you believe — that consensus-seeking is bad.

The two major problems with consensus-seeking are time lost and lack of commitment. You sacrifice time with endless discussion, and with no decision, there’s nothing to commit to.

For that reason, any decision is better than no decision, even if it proves to be the wrong choice. Being wrong is often more efficient than trying to ensure you’re right, and conducting marathon debates won’t save you from mistakes, anyway.

Consensus is painful, and you don’t need it. What you do need is commitment. Seeking consensus will drain energy and morale whereas listening and incorporating feedback will build trust. When the team trusts you, they’ll support your decisions, and that’s how you get commitment.

Energy saved by skipping analysis paralysis now gets applied toward the commitment, and a positive cycle begins. Commitment and energy lead to results. Results earn trust and influence, which then get applied to the next round of decisions.

Making decisions is more important than the decisions themselves. Know what you’re trying to achieve, listen to your team, and make a decision. Everyone will be happier and more productive for it.


This article was originally published in The Ascent on January 5, 2021.

The Fault In Our Loyalties

Photo by Thomas Evans on Unsplash

Having the wrong “first team” may be driving intergroup conflict throughout your company

Regardless of your position in a company, you’re probably a part of multiple teams. You have an immediate team — the people you work with every day. There’s another team made up of everybody in your department, and you might also be on a team with peers from other departments. And within those teams, there might be even more virtual teams that you belong to.

The point is, you’ve got a lot of teams beyond the one you’re assigned to on the org chart.

But, all those teams have a common goal. They all want the company to grow and succeed and be an awesome place to work. If everybody and every team wants the same thing, what’s the problem? Why do you need to know your “first team” and prioritize your allegiance?

The plan is nothing, strategery is everything

For most of my life, commitment & accountability have gone hand-in-hand as the formula for success. Set a goal, commit, and get it done. So, as I’ve landed in leadership roles, it’s something I’ve emphasized a lot with my teams.

That’s not bad, per se, but I was encouraging commitment at the wrong level. I wanted team members to commit to completing an assignment within a certain timeframe, then hold themselves accountable to get it done. However, that sort of commitment has proven to be too low-level and individual-focused.

You can’t emphasize execution without buy-in on strategy.

What I’ve come to realize is that commitment is much more effective when used to obtain buy-in from the team on a particular strategy. In other words, it’s really powerful when the team can agree, “We’re going to accomplish X by doing A, B, & C,” and commit to the approach. You can’t emphasize execution without buy-in on strategy. I’d been looking for people to commit to A, B, & C without understanding or agreement on what we were trying to accomplish.

I was doing everything I could to make execution of assignments go as smoothly as possibly — and being marginally successful — but it wasn’t until I read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that I came to see I was prioritizing my teams incorrectly and creating unnecessary turbulence as a result.

In the book, members of a fictional executive team learn to prioritize shared objectives above the goals of their individual departments so the company can succeed. They prioritize themselves as a team and align on strategy. Departments begin working together to achieve common goals rather than competing for resources, and they experience success as an organization rather than as disconnected teams. It’s beautiful.

Overarching goal, all the way across the sky

Every team will have an opinion on what’s most important and how to achieve success. The sales team will tell you sales are the key: “Great product doesn’t mean anything if nobody buys it, and revenue is our lifeblood.” The product team notes, however, that this is why investing in the product is so crucial. “If you have a superior product, selling is easier!” Finance might say sales and product mean nothing if you spend irresponsibly and manage money poorly.

The thing is, each of these teams is right. Their perspectives are valid and true. What’s most essential, though, is to have an overarching goal— an objective that all the teams can get behind and rally around. Something to unite the clans.

“If everything is important, then nothing is.”

An overarching goal is important because, as CEO Kathryn notes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “If everything is important, then nothing is.” The goals of individual teams are certainly important, but the leadership of those teams needs to commit to a greater objective. Without agreement at the top, conflict will trickle down through the ranks and become more severe at it seeps deeper in the company.

The whole is greater than some of its parts. Or whatever.

In order for the company to be truly successful, all teams need to achieve some level of success. No single team can carry all the others, but one failing hard enough could lead to disaster. It doesn’t matter if your team hits its numbers if everything else burns to ash.

I’m a competitive person. I want my team to be the best and most successful. It’s easy to look at peer teams and think, “Not my problem. We’re doing our part.” There’s even a certain amount of pride in that, right? To know that you’re winning by out-pacing the others? But I also know that my team’s only part of the puzzle, and our performance won’t mean as much without the other teams succeeding.

For the company to succeed, all teams need to work together to maximize strengths, mitigate weaknesses, and understand how they’re doing collectively so they can adapt and win. This is where the concept of your first team becomes so important. You shouldn’t just listen to your peers explain what’s happening on their respective teams. You should be invested in it. You should be on the same page about what you’re trying to accomplish together— the overarching goal — and be willing to adapt as a group in order meet your objective, because that will make the company successful.

The concentric safety dance

One of key themes in Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last is the importance of the circle of safety. The idea is that when a group trusts each other and doesn’t need to worry about internal threats, it can focus all of its energy externally which allows the group to succeed.

Imagine an organization where all the leaders are in the middle of circles that represent their departments, divisions, or teams of direct reports. The individual teams are united and working together well, but they’re treating other teams within the organization as external threats. That makes for a tremendous amount of energy wasted on intergroup conflict.

Now let’s adjust the picture so that the leadership team forms their own circle of safety in the middle. When this group trusts itself and has a shared vision, its energy can all be focused outward to the next layer of team. When all teams are being directed toward common objectives, they can also learn to trust each other eventually form their own greater circle of safety.

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Come down from the mountain

Deciding that you’re more committed to one team than another doesn’t mean the other team is unimportant or somehow less valuable. Those other teams, especially the one made of your direct reports or day-to-day peers, are extremely important. It’s critical to invest heavily in those teams and relationships, but prioritizing your allegiance will improve the efficiency of all your teams immensely.

Google research has shown that psychological safety is the number one most important factor for effective teams. When leadership agrees on an overarching goal and strategy for achieving it, it leads to commitment. Commitment within leadership translates to clearer messages around what needs to be accomplished by their teams — the commitment travels down and across the organization. Cross-team alignment means less conflict and less internal threat, which in turn allows teams to focus more of their energy outward and toward achieving the common goals. A tidal wave of commitment can wash over the entire organization.

It starts with leaders prioritizing themselves as a team and putting the interests of the company ahead of those of their specific departments.

Ask yourself, who is your first team? What’s the overarching goal that the team is trying to achieve, and what’s the strategy for achieving it? How is the team progressing, and how can it use its collective resources to adapt?

Work together as a leadership team. Set an overarching goal, commit to a strategy, and hold each other accountable to execute your parts. With clarity and commitment, all teams can contribute and support each other in helping the company achieve its goals, and the company will grow, succeed, and be an awesome place to work.


Want to learn more? Check out these books! Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon.


This article was originally published in ILLUMINATION on December 23, 2020.