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 Chartered Project Professional, Fellow and former Trustee of APM.  She is a thought-partner and advisor working at leadership team and board level across government, the public sector and private sector organisations.  Sarah has over 30 years' experience across the entire lifecycle from inception to closure and of every aspect of project, programme and portfolio management and of transformation across private sectors, public services and government in the UK and internationally.  She is valued for her excellent communication style, relationship-building skills at all levels of the organization, her willingness to share experience and knowledge gained in other sectors, and her ability to challenge positively and constructively. 

Since October 2016 Sarah has been an Infrastructure and Projects Authority Associate, Major Projects Reviewer and Subject Matter Expert (Projects, Programmes and Transformation) for infrastructure, digitisation and transformation.  Sarah has extensive experience of every aspect of projects, programmes and transformation across the entire lifecycle (from early stage shaping and scoping through to start-up, delivery and closure) and across all activities (establishing governance and process, planning, performance reporting, benefits management, risk identification and management, through to communication and stakeholder engagement.  She also has robust experience of assuring projects, programmes and transformation, and of developing competency frameworks and L&D strategies for in-house capability building. She helped Wellingtone develop their APM Accredited Assurance Practitioner Course.

Sarah’s work over the last few years has encompassed the UK nuclear estate, HS2 P-Rep team, critical friend support across UK government departments and GMPP reviews.   Clients and former employers have included BT plc, Rolls Royce plc, Grant Thornton UK LLP, Experian, Diamond Light Source Ltd, Pera, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Stroke Association, NHS, Legal and General, Home Office, Bank of America, PA Consulting, Defra, COLT Technology Services, Department for Transport, Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Air Miles amongst others. 

Sarah holds an MBA from Cranfield School of Management and is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University.  She is a Chartered Project Professional, Fellow and former Non-Executive Director of the Association for Project Management, and a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute. 

Sarah is a published author ((“Project Leadership: skills, behaviours, knowledge and values” (APM Publishing, 2018), “Project Leadership” (Gower, 2015), “Organizational Change Explained” (Kogan Page, 2017), “Dealing with Power and Politics” for “Business Analysis and Leadership: Influencing Change” (Kogan Page, 2013)), and contributor to books ('Strategies for Project Sponsorship' (2013), Management Concepts Press; 'Developing the Practice of Governance', APM Publishing 2020), professional bodies of knowledge ('APM Body of Knowledge 7th edition', APM Publishing 2019) and professional journals. She has also guest lectured at Cranfield University, Loughborough University, Oxford Brookes University, Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University.  She regularly presents for professional bodies and at P3M community conferences.  She is a qualified and experienced coach and mentor. 

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