Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

You're Looking for Help in All the Wrong Places

ARCHIVES
sgm/Shutterstock.com

Several decades ago, a team of experts built the world's most expensive mirror. It was for the Hubble Space Telescope, and the mirror was the key to focusing light that predated the stars, capturing images that had never been seen by human eyes. The precision was measured in millionths of an inch. If the mirror's surface were the size of the Atlantic Ocean, the surface would need to be so smooth that no wave would be taller than 3 inches.

When the telescope launched in 1990, the images came back blurry. The mirror was the wrong shape by 2 percent of the width of a human hair. It couldn't focus light with the required precision. The telescope was only able to do about half of the work that it was launched to do, and in 1993, NASA burned several hundred million dollars on a repair mission.

What went wrong? When journalists Robert Capers and Eric Lipton investigated, they discovered that the team of designers, engineers and technicians at Perkin-Elmer resisted help from experts. When initial tests of the mirror pointed to potential problems, the engineers refused an independent test. To safeguard against errors, the company appointed a former chief scientist, Roderic Scott, as a consultant and adviser. Scott was a world-class optical designer with an astronomy doctorate from Harvard, but the team refused to seek his support and follow his guidance. As Capers and Lipton put it, "Whenever Scott knocked on the door of the polishing room, the technicians . . . would say, 'Hey, Rod is out there. Don't let him in. Turn up the radio.' "

What would prevent the team from seeking and accepting help? Research by Fiona Lee, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, documents pervasive fears of help-seeking in organizations. People worry that if they ask for help, they'll appear incompetent, vulnerable, dependent or helpless.

But does seeking help actually carry these costs? In a study led by psychologist Arie Nadler, employees at a chemical plant reported how often they sought help from co-workers and supervisors. When Nadler's team collected supervisors' performance evaluations of each employee, it turned out that the best performers were those who sought the most help from experts. By asking for help, employees were able to develop their knowledge and skills, which enabled them to do better work.

However, performance was only optimized when employees sought help from experts. Surprisingly, many employees went to nonexperts, and the more often they did so, the worse they performed.

In one study, David Hofmann, Zhike Lei and I found that when people need help, they prioritize trust and accessibility over expertise. We ask the people we know well and who seem available, rather than the people best qualified to help us. That limits the value of the information that we receive, not to mention our learning and development.

Sometimes, we hold back because we know experts are busy and we don’t want to bother them. A more serious barrier, though, is ego. When people are insecure, they strive to maintain an image of superiority, carefully hiding the chinks in their armor. In the Hubble debacle, Scott lamented that when he tried to help one of the engineers, "he took it as a personal affront," as if "I was insulting his intelligence." Fiona Lee finds that these insecurities are particularly pronounced among leaders and managers, who dread the prospect of losing their power and status.

When top executives do reach out, they often go to the wrong sources. In a pioneering study led by researcher Michael McDonald, CEOs reported where they went for strategic advice. The worse their companies were doing, the more likely CEOs were to seek out advice from people who shared their perspectives—friends and colleagues with the same expertise. They should have done the exact opposite: Company performance improved when CEOs sought advice from executives who weren't their friends and who had different expertise. Instead of reinforcing redundant knowledge and bad decisions, these contacts brought fresh insights that corrected errors and sparked innovation.

For organizations to prosper, leaders and employees need to seek help and information from people who have vastly different points of view. As Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth sums up three decades of research: "Minority viewpoints are important, not because they tend to prevail but because they stimulate divergent attention and thought. As a result, even when they are wrong they contribute to the detection of novel solutions and decisions that, on balance, are qualitatively better."

Interestingly, this willingness to accept outside ideas led to a silver lining in the Hubble cloud. Before NASA sent astronauts into space to fix the flawed mirror, they developed new software to correct the blurry images. Radiologist Matthew Freedman saw a presentation on the software, and noticed similarities between locating a distant star in a fuzzy telescope image and detecting small calcifications in mammograms. Rather than resisting the outside idea, Freedman and his colleagues embraced a collaboration with astronomers, which culminated in the creation of a more accurate, efficient technique for using digital images to detect breast cancer, making it possible to analyze tissue with a needle rather than surgery.

(Image via sgm/Shutterstock.com)

July 31, 2012Whart, ... ]

Adam Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton. He has been recognized as Wharton’s single-highest-rated teacher, one of BusinessWeek’s favorite professors, and one of the world’s 40 best business professors under 40. Previously, he was a record-setting advertising director at Let’s Go Publications, an All-American springboard diver, and a professional magician. Adam is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He earned his Ph.D. in organizational psychology from the University of Michigan, completing it in less than three years, and his B.A. from Harvard University, magna cum laude with highest honors and Phi Beta Kappa honors. He has been honored with the Excellence in Teaching Award for every class that he has taught and has presented for leaders at organizations such as Google, the NFL, Merck, Pixar, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.