Any advice on how to better manage a team that doesn’t like to ask for help? Our company culture is mistake-friendly and solution-focused, and we reiterate that all the time. Why is my team still hiding mistakes or operating with an “I got this!” mentality when they, erm, don’t always got this? My supervisors are saying it’s not me, but…I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s me.

Emma: I can imagine exactly what happened at work the day this reader wrote to us: another mistake that wouldn’t need to be fixed if the person who’d made it had just asked for help. And it sounds like it’s not just one or two trigger-happy reports, either. It’s a whole team screwing stuff up!

Andy: Oh, I can relate to both sides of this story. I don’t particularly enjoy seeing people on my team make preventable mistakes, but it took me a loooong time to realize how awesome it was to ask for help. A lot of top performers I know are self-sufficient to a fault. It makes sense: if you were really great and smart and fast growing up, you didn’t get a lot of opportunities to practice asking for help.

Emma: And likely were praised for not needing it!

Andy: Exactly. I know that I used to think asking for help was tantamount to admitting fault — if I wasn’t self-sufficient, I was defective. And in my experience, it’s not really enough to be told to celebrate mistake-making and help-asking. Getting there is a total reprogramming, a process of moving the idea from your head to your conscious actions to a reflex.

Emma: It also takes some wherewithal to know when something is actually going to become a mistake. One of my most memorable on-the-job flubs was when I was home from my freshman year of college and working as a cashier at Nordstrom. There was a customer with a complicated return: sale items, exchanges, multiple credit cards. I should have been able to do it. I had been trained on the register’s system earlier that summer; I had been using it for several weeks. I tried my best. It worked — insomuch as a receipt printed and the customer walked away. I figured I had squeaked through and everything was fine until the customer came back after reviewing the receipt and realized they were still owed several hundred dollars.

Andy: Whoops!

Emma: It was awful. I called my manager so she could untangle the mess, and I spent the rest of the summer in the basement attaching fake sensors to the cuffs of expensive jeans. The loss prevention security alarms at the Nordstrom where I worked were just for show.

Andy: Banished to the basement! How brutal. Is that when you started asking for help?

Emma: Help putting sensors on jeans? Lol I aced that all on my own. But no, I didn’t really understand the concept of asking for help — especially to execute the basic duties I was hired to do — until probably my second or third job after college. It takes practice, and there was some judgement I had to hone: who to ask, at what time, how to phrase it. It’s hard. My boss that summer could have written word-for-word this exact same letter to us. Why was I pretending “I got this!” when I so obviously didn’t? Because I should have, and because I thought I did.

Andy: There are certainly ways to make asking for help easier. Our letter writer’s company has already started on one of the big ones: telling employees that mistakes are okay. It reminds me of parents who say, “No matter what, you can always call me to come pick you up.” Likewise, there’s no mistake too big or too small that your team can’t turn to you for help. That’s really, really great. But it doesn’t clear all the snow from the road. Most teens don’t call until things are really bad, and neither is your team.

Emma: Let’s figure out some ways to get them to pick up the phone a little sooner.

5 Ways to Get Your Team To Ask For Help

Identify what you actually want.

Emma: What is the ideal scenario here? You’re looking for a big change in your team’s culture, and I think it’s worth getting clear about the underlying motivations. I recommend a quick 5 Why’s exercise to help you know how hard to push, how soon to expect results, and what’s at stake if you don’t get them. There’s a big difference between My team catches every single mistake before it happens and My reports are comfortable discussing their works-in-progress during our 1-on-1s. When you get the one-sentence explanation of what you really want, share it with the people on your team so everyone is working toward the same goal.

Andy: As you do this exercise, remember a mistake-free team is a fantasy. If you hit “make no mistakes” in your 5 Whys, keep going. You’ll find a richer and more meaningful purpose — something you can really rally your team behind.

Model the behaviors you want to see on your team.

Andy: This is very important: Are you asking for help from your team? Are you sharing the stories of how you got help and what issues it prevented? This can really be as simple as asking for someone to proofread an important email, or saying at a team-wide meeting, “I don’t know. Serena, can you help me figure that out this afternoon?”

Emma: Equally important is genuinely celebrating when your people do it right. How are people who ask for help being rewarded or validated? It has to be more than the collective relief of an avoided mistake. Try providing explicit reinforcement: “I really respect that you brought this to my attention, especially so late in the game. Yanking the chain never feels good — but it’s what saved this team an all-nighter next week. Thank you.”

Make it regular.

Andy: Do you have low-stakes ways for your team to get help, and to practice asking? It’s one thing to remind people that your door is always open. As you’ve noticed, it’s quite another for people to actually walk through it — or send the Slack message or blast off the “Help!” email. There’s really no way for those things not to feel like an interruption. Weekly open office hours are a great remedy for this, and are still an option via remote video chat.

Emma: Totally. When we existed in a world where we worked alongside each other in offices, I also used to wander around from desk to desk, checking in on people. Sometimes it would just be a few minutes of casual chit-chat about books or TV shows or what we were doing this weekend, but it also showed that I was up from my desk and available to field any work questions. I brought my open door to them.

Andy: Another favorite is asking Best-Worst-Worries during weekly 1-on-1s or all-team meetings. The Worsts are the mistakes, where together you can identify the moment when your report could have asked for help. The Worries are spots where they can ask for help now. And a lot of the Bests are actually times when help arrived! It’s nice to retell these Best-Worst-Worries back to you team from the lens of when and how to ask for help.

Provide self-help centers.

Andy: If your team isn’t ready to come to you with every question, think about putting together resources they will feel comfortable turning to: wikis, checklists, training documentation. Have the people on your team create them! They’ll be re-learning how to navigate some of the mistakes they made, and also becoming a valuable resource to their peers.

Emma: I’ve always been happier turning to my teammates for advice, not my direct supervisor. Developing subject matter experts within your team not only empowers them, but relieves some of the burden on you, the manager, to be the single point of knowledge. Now, Becca is also a go-to for questions on quality. Nicole can weigh-in on the process. Philip can fix anything technical!

Address mistakes.

Emma: As friendly as we might be to mistakes, they’re still mistakes. Saying they’re all hunky-dory learning opportunities can be confusing, especially if there have been big consequences. You can provide direct, clear feedback in your 1-on-1s that changes behavior without crushing spirits.

Andy: You can even give feedback on things that seem good, but are actually bad, such as a report trying to solve a problem on their own (good! sorta!), but they only made it worse (bad).