Image via morrison/Shutterstock.com

Why Seeking Help Doesn't Make You Look Bad

Many employees look for help in all the wrong places--and that damages performance.

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 three 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 coworkers 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 non-experts, and the more often they did so, the worse they performed. In a study of nurses, David Hofmann, Zhike Lei, and I found that nurses often chose not to seek help from experts when they lacked a strong tie and doubted whether they would be available. By neglecting to seek out experts for help, they restricted their problem-solving effectiveness, as well as their learning and development.

Fragile egos often get in the way of going to experts. When people are insecure, they strive to maintain an image of superiority, carefully hiding 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.” Lee finds that these insecurities are particularly pronounced among leaders and managers, who dread the prospect of losing their power and status. And 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.

Visit giveandtake.com to learn more.

NEXT STORY: The Telework Generation Gap

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.