How to Get a Team Member to Ask for Help (when they need it)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I have a member of my team that works hard and handles day to day tasks well, but, when his plate gets a little too full, I often don’t find out about it until after an issue happens with a client. I do my best to stay on top of his task list and he knows he can always ask me for help, he just doesn’t. Every client has different times where they are busy and times they are quiet so I need my team to let me know when they need additional resources to hit their deadlines. I think not-asking for help is a mixture of pride and a lack of foresight to see trouble coming. As his manager, how can I help make this situation better (without looking over his shoulder all day, every day)?

Little problems, allowed to fester, become big problems. And, as the manager, you would have fixed the little problem (when it was easy to fix) if you had only known.

This situation has several parts to it –

  • The team member’s recognition the problem exists.
  • The team member’s understanding where to go for help.
  • The team member’s mindset (belief) about the problem and the channels for help.

Problem Recognition
As the manager, given the same circumstance, you would have recognized the problem or at least the potential for a problem. Your team member may not see what you see, yet, you rely on your team member to spot the trouble. Spend time with your team, in general discussion, on problem identification. You can start with debriefs of completed projects.

  • What did we expect?
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • How did we find out what went wrong?
  • How can we recognize something-going-wrong next time?
  • When we recognize something-going-wrong, what can we do about it?

Next move to existing projects and ask the same questions.

  • What do we expect in this current project?
  • What do we do well, what are our strengths?
  • What could go wrong?
  • How will we find out something is about to go wrong?
  • How will we recognize something is about to go wrong?
  • When we recognize something about to go wrong, what can we do to prevent it?

Channels for Help
These debrief meetings lead into project status meetings. A project going OKAY doesn’t really tell us much. Create some sort of shorthand or code that describes specific states of projects. You can use project stages, color codes, alphabet codes. You pick. Most importantly, identify the code level when the decision is in the hands of the team member and the code level when the decision needs to surface to the manager.

I am suggesting a formal structure that guides your team to ask for help. As the manager, you are currently trusting the team member to make a decision without context. Create a context that provides specific guidelines about when and how to ask for help. Your team can (and will) help you create this context as part of the project debriefs.

Culture is a set of beliefs that provide context for behavior. Without context, the team member will create their own context, which can be misguided to the purpose of the project. Most team members do not think about the future implications of problems allowed to fester. Here are some questions to structure what we believe about the future of the problem.

  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a day?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a week?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a month?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a year?

Ask your team to collectively imagine into the future. It is a powerful way for a manager to get in touch with current mindsets and create a context to anticipate and prevent problems in the future. Change the context, behavior follows.

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