Why Leaders Fail to Ask for Help

When you find yourself dealing with emergencies on a regular basis, surprised by unexpected drama and drowning in a sea of overwhelm look for a common thread: avoidance. In my consulting work I’m seeing a cultural trend where people pretend things are OK, when in reality the surprises continue to disrupt productivity, and turnover becomes the hidden leak in the boat. There are several underlying reasons new and even seasoned leaders fail to ask for help. This article explores four reasons leaders fail to ask for help, while offering practical tips to help build a culture of collaboration and support.

1.  Blind to the Danger Signs
An executive consulting client who had full access to me to call at any time did not call me even though coaching and support could have saved the day. After two abrupt resignations, several disruptions, and clear signs that trust was declining, I finally got a phone call for help.

When I asked why there had been no request for support, the leader said, “This all just happened last week!”  The reality is when the drama is this substantial there are always signs along the way.

When the leader does not know how to identify the danger signs they reach out after it’s too late to make early course-corrections as a preventative measure.

Practical Tips and Advice

  • When no one ever complains and things seem too good to be true, recognize this as a sign of denial or lack of trust within the organization.
  • Make asking for help part of the expectations for leadership advancement.
  • Set the example by asking for help. If you have trouble asking for help, so will your followers.

2.  Confusing Accountability with Judgment
Cultures that pride themselves on accountability often see a paradox: Employees skewing numbers, falsifying information and procrastinating. The reason is because accountability has become a dirty word. Instead of looking at accountability as a tool to help course-correct, accountability is looked upon as a whipping stick. The name of the game is Got-cha! Versus How Can I Help?

Practical Tips and Advice

  • Accountability always includes measuring tools and a “witness.” If there’s no one to coach the person or to ensure accurate measures, there is no real accountability.
  • Make sure that accountability is used as a way to course-correct when the problem is small, rather than a means to punish after the problem has metastasized.
  • Reward those who use accountability as a way to fix errors early.

3. Lack of Ownership
A lot of workplaces work on accountability without discerning the difference between accountability and responsibility. Accountability is about measurement, while responsibility is about ownership.  Until there is a sense of ownership (responsibility) there will be no real accountability. My suggestion is to build a culture of ownership, and then accountability will be sought after rather than feared.

Practical Tips and Advice

  • Blame and excuses indicate a lack of ownership.
  • Ownership and initiative are prerequisites before setting up accountability systems.
  • One who is not willing to acknowledge problems will also not be willing to be accountable.

4. Pride
Many new leaders succumb to the myth that they have to know more than everyone else. This burden keeps them from delegating, sharing the glory and asking for help. Over and over in my facilitated Leadership Identity Retreats, I hear the statement, “I can’t ask someone to do something I don’t know how to do.” This mindset keeps leaders working 80 hours a week, feeling exhausted and hiding the fact that they feel incompetent.

Practical Tips and Advice

  • Leadership is about getting things done through others.
  • Repeat after me: “I do not have to know how to do everything. I just need to know the right person who does know.”
  • Publicly recognize those who shine so that people are proud to develop new expertise.

Asking for help is a skill most of us need to practice. Once you get over your ego, asking for help offers many benefits. Others get to shine and are more likely to ask you for help when they need it. You save time, reduce stress, and come to terms with the fact that none of us are invincible, but together we are unstoppable.

Marlene-Blk4Marlene Chism is an executive educator, consultant, and author of Stop Workplace Drama, (Wiley 2011) and No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015). She works with executives, and high-performing leaders who want to transform culture in the workplace. To explore opportunities please email marlene@marlenechism.com