What I Learned from a Near-Death Experience By Marshall Goldsmith...
Too many of us try to go it alone. Our near-clinical reluctance to ask for help is not a genetic defect, like color blindness or tone deafness. It is an acquired defect, a behavioral failing we are conditioned to accept from an early age. In grad school in my organizational psychology classes, I didn’t learn the ways in which companies slyly discourage asking for help. I had to learn this on the job.
In 1979, I was working at IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York, at a time when IBM was the most admired company in the world, the gold standard in management. At the same time, IBM had a problem: Its managers were not perceived internally as doing a good job coaching their direct reports.
I was called in to review IBM’s program in which they trained managers to be good coaches. Over the years, they had spent millions of dollars on the program—with negligible improvement to show for it. Managers were still bad at coaching their direct reports. I was invited to Armonk for a firsthand look to figure out what went wrong and why. When I interviewed employees, a typical interview went like this:
I asked the direct reports:
Q: Does your manager do a good job providing coaching?
I asked the managers:
Q: Do your direct reports ever ask you for coaching?
A: No, never.
Back to the direct reports.
Q: Do you ask your manager for coaching?
Curious about IBM’s performance appraisal system, I analyzed the employees’ year-end reviews and discovered that this was how IBM defined a top performer:
Performs effectively with no need for coaching.
Basically, IBM had created a vicious cycle whereby if the manager offered coaching, the employee was incentivized to respond, “No, thank you, boss. I perform effectively with no need for coaching.” (You can’t make this up!)
I’d like to say IBM’s dilemma was unique. But it wasn’t. IBM was merely the platinum-plated example of companies making the same mistake.
It started at the top rungs of IBM management, few of whom would debase themselves by admitting they needed help. To ask for help was deemed a sign of weakness. You asked for help when
(a) you didn’t know something,
(b) you couldn’t do something, or
(c) you lacked resources.
In other (more pejorative) words, you asked for help because of your:
None of these is a good look.
Since people in any organization tended to model their behavior on that of their bosses, the CEO’s attitude about not seeking help swiftly flowed down the hierarchy and settled in place for everyone to emulate.
Sure, corporations actively hired trainers to teach classes on generalized topics that we had learned in business school—teamwork, situational leadership, decentralization, total quality, Six Sigma, “excellence,” and the rest—but these were more like the continuing education courses that doctors and CPAs were required to take to maintain their professional accreditation.
This was a shame —
asking for help should be seen as a sign that you’re willing to learn,
not as a sign of weakness.