Asking for help: strength or weakness?

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I recently presented on a webinar on diversity for the Association for Project Management. The webinar was a joint event between the Women in Project Management, and the Enabling Change SIGs. I talked about how diverse the human race is as a result of genetic mutation and adaptation to geography and environment; about how we construct our version of “normal” in the groups, organisations and societies we create; and about the resulting conscious and unconscious bias we exhibit towards those who are not the same as we are (my first degree in Anthropology has a lot to answer for!). I also talked about gender diversity, which continues to hit the headlines from the number of women on boards to parity in pay.  But for project and programme professionals diversity relates strongly to teams, to clients and to end users. Diversity in this context focuses predominantly on bringing together a disparate group of individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives, thinking styles, specialisms, experience, cultures and ethnicities across geographic boundaries, and then ensuring these gel together well and fast to provide a high-performing team.  

I was asked “why women need more help” than men.  An interesting, if not provocative, question.  

I pointed out that gender is a very obvious and visible diversity trait, and asked whether he (for it was a ‘he’) could identify specific times or events when he had noticed that women need more help than men under the same circumstances; what kind of help he thought women needed; and which women specifically required help. I mentioned that much of the research into gender differences highlights that women are more social and collaborative than men: was it possible that what he perceived as "needing help" was actually something else?

And later I thought further on the question: why do we ask for help at all?  We all need help at various times: we ask for help, advice and guidance in our professional lives from those who have the experience we need to benefit from, and from those we trust and admire. For some of the project and programme practitioners I coach, it can be because they want to increase their performance to get that next promotion; equally it can be because they have been promoted and are struggling with a new role and responsibilities so need some direction and reassurance.   

The most obvious reason for asking for help is the knowledge we cannot do whatever we need to do alone and look to the experience, knowledge and skill from others.  It’s about learning from the best, about inviting input into areas you know you need to build on.  

But we also ask for help for other reasons, some of them to do with building relationships and collaborating. Asking for help, advice or guidance from a more experienced and organisationally intelligent colleague flatters, appeals to their sense of authority and starts conversations. Experienced project and programme professionals choose to ask for help when they don’t actually need it because it is also a deliberate and calculated move with the purpose of building a relationship and fostering a sense of reciprocity, so interdependency and co-operation. It’s also about appealing to another’s sense of altruism to help an individual, the team and the project. And as such, it is a useful strategy for re-engaging interest from a project sponsor who has let their commitment to the project dwindle, or for dealing with recalcitrant or difficult project team members and stakeholders.   

So is asking for help a strength or a weakness?  What are your own experiences of asking for help, or being asked for help?”

Sarah Coleman

Posted by Sarah Coleman on 31st May 2016

About the Author

Sarah Coleman is a Fellow and former Trustee of APM. She started her career in ICT and draws on over 25 years’ experience in the project and programme arena. She specialises in improving the performance of projects, programmes and change in organizations, and in developing project, programme and change professionals. Sarah is a Visiting Fellow at Lincoln University, and is regularly invited to speak at business schools, conferences and professional body events. She is a published author “Project Leadership” (Gower, 2015), "Dealing with Power and Politics” for “Business Analysis and Leadership” (Kogan Page, 2013) and has edited a book on organisational change.

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