Question: How do I encourage my employees to actively seek help?

What kind of incentives and other measures can we put in place to encourage our employees to actively seek help from co-workers, instead of trying to figure things out on their own?

I think this is the single biggest problem preventing us from having a more collaborative and productive workplace (we are a mid-sized bank).


14 Expert Insights

If you want employees to seek out help from one another I suggest the following 2 approaches:

#1 - Have the team working toward TEAM goals, not only individual goals. A "Team Dashboard" that makes clear the measures of success for the team as a WHOLE keeps people focused on working TOGETHER vs. on only their individual areas.

#2 - Create forums that are explicitly designed for people to ask for and offer help. This could be as simple as an agenda item in a weekly team meeting where people are expected to share what they are doing, where they are stuck, and have open discussions about how to work together to achieve the results required.

#3 - Recognize and reward both asking for and providing help. What's rewarded is repeated.

#4 - Measure the "Asking for Help" index of your team. What's measured is what matters.

BOTTOM LINE: Business is a team sport, and people who are truly great leaders ask for help from their teammates.

This is a common challenge in professional settings. One of the key reasons that keeps people from asking for help is because there is a perception of weakness when asking for help. This is due to some societal issues (rugged individualists) as well as cultural issues within your company.

The best way to get different behaviors from your employees is to reward the ones who collaborate and ask for help. The flip side of that coin is to NOT reward the ones who muddle through alone. The old saying holds true when it comes to culture. "People don't believe what they see on the walls. They believe what they see in the halls." Set the expectation (vision) that collaborating, working together, and asking for help what people are expected to do. Then make it easy for them to do it. (Team breakout rooms, time to co-design solutions to problems/opportunities). Then call-out the bad behavior (silo and solo work) while rewarding the positive behavior (collaboration). It may take a little time but this will help.

Finally, the senior leaders have to also model this behavior. SHOW them how you are also asking for help to solve challenges that impact the overall company. Publicly admit that you don't have all the answers (nobody has all the answers) and then engage them in helping you solve your problems. Leading by example in this way will show them the way. It's your own opportunity to show them what they see in the halls.

I hope that helps. Let me know if you would like further clarification.

Best of luck!

Great comments about rewarding and recognizing desired behavior, modeling the behavior rather than just talking about it, and establishing common goals and objectives.  I would also suggest that changing behavior is difficult and in order to drive that change, communications should be developed that addresses three dimensions:

1.  Why is this important to the company?  What is the impact on performance and KPI's if employees start asking for help instead of trying to figure things out themselves.

2.  Why is this important to me personally, or WIIFM (What's in it for me?)  This doesn't always have to be a financial reward, but may address things like impact, recognition, career opportunities, etc.  Certainly the suggestion to reward and recognize the desired behavior fits here.

3.  What do you want me to do differently?  If the company simply says, "we want you to start asking for help", without providing some idea of what that means in the manner in which they behave and do their jobs, they may intellectually get it,  but not move it from their heads to their hearts to the hands.

Great answers from all my colleagues!

The main thing that struck me immediately upon reading the question was that In order to encourage employees to actively seek help -- from their managers and from their peers, organizations in general, and the managers specifically, need to create a culture and a climate that not only allows for help-seeking, but encourages it. In too many companies I’ve seen managers SAY they have an “open door policy” (“You know you can always stop by and ask me anything, anytime!”), only to make their people regret it immediately thereafter when the manager makes the person feel stupid, inadequate, or embarrassed for daring to make themselves vulnerable. And once embarrassed in front of their peers, how many employees are going to themselves in that position?

Managers need to make THEMSELVES vulnerable by admitting that THEY don’t have all the answers, and by acknowledging when they make mistakes. Rather than sweeping mistakes under the rug or blaming others, managers who act like leaders find learning opportunities and teachable moments on a daily basis and created a climate of learning and sharing. And they demonstrate collaborate sharing by seeking input and opinions from those around them -- up, down, and across. By modeling the behaviors they desire in others, and practicing what they preach, it will quickly become part of the organizational and departmental culture.

Employees live what they learn. And they learn the most from their direct managers -- as well as from the peers who step up to leadership by facilitating dialogue and debate about how best to solve common business challenges. As a manager, seek to catch people in the act of helping one another, acknowledge and recognize it, and you'll soon find collaboration and cooperation to become a habit practiced by all.

The answers above are excellent. I would add that it is important to be a leader not a manager. It is a team sport so be a coach. Everything that gets done gets done through a process. Establishing your activities as a process, mapping your processes and encouraging associates to improve the process takes the people out of the problem. It's the processes, not the people that are the problem. Working as a team to improve the processes with each person being responsible for their process makes it much easier to seek help.

If you are accessible, if you and your associates focus on process improvement you will encourage and develop a team culture that is innovative and always moving forward. Change is inevitable; growth is optional.

In addition to all of the fine answers, above, I'd also recommend having each employee having a continually-updated learning plan.  Doing so will help identify areas that the employee will be seeking assistance in growing, making "asking questions" a routine behavior rather than an exceptional quest when stumbling.

To accomplish this, managers need to help employees identify strength areas in which to continue to expand and grow competencies, and guide employees on how to best contribute their individual strengths to the team.


All excellent suggestions!

I encourage a couple of things, remembering that Change comes from Focus + Repetition. Changing behavior takes time and must include shifts in the beliefs that underlie current behaviors.

1) Focus on 'coaching' behaviors as several have noted. Coaching behaviors encourage people to strengthen their problem solving abilities (in this case, team abilities) and encourage small but consistent movement. Critical coaching behaviors include Querying, Listening (listening beneath the words) and Feeding back and forward.

2) Introduce and use language that reinforces the change you're seeking, and repeat. Again and again. We too often think, "I told them, and they are adults" so repeating is just redundant. Not so. Using language that explains and reiterates the behaviors you're seeking, and continuing to use that language is very helpful reinforcement. The more often you use the words that support behaviors, the more often everyone begins to use them and they become part of workplace culture.

Best wishes!

Great suggestions by everyone.

Some additional aspects to consider are:

1) In the Western part of the world, we've been acculturated to be strong individual contributors (and men tend me be even more strongly acculturated in this direction than women according to research). So in a very real way, collaboration runs counter to the cultural model of individualism and competition that many people have been subtly and overtly trained to exhibit.

2) As a result, make sure that you, whether you're their leader/manager or a peer, are consistently modeling the behavior you want them to take on. Each of us, especially when we're in leadership roles, create a culture around us that's based on what we ourselves do (vs. what we may say, but not do).

3) As was mentioned by several others as well, creating and rewarding team goals and collaboration and highlighting those who are good collaborators is important.

4) In addition, catch people doing it right -- in other words, notice them in the act of collaborating and acknowledge that behavior in the moment. Studies (and our own experience) have shown this to be a simple, but powerful way to reinforce and encouraged desired behavior.

5) Lastly, remember that the result your are seeking is a process and that the outcome is proceeded by two critical components: Mindset and Behavior. As the cognitive model outlines, Mindset drives Behavior and Behavior generates Results.

If the result you want is collaboration, make sure people understand why its valuable for them personally, and their team and the company. Then let them know examples of when and how you'd like them to collaborate. It might seem like you shouldn't have to provide such specifics, but when you're working to re-acculurate people to a new mode or way of being, being clear about what you envision and expect can be essential.

Best wishes to you!

Here is another solution to consider:  Leverage or create Communities of Practice (CoPs) in your organization.

CoPs are groups of individuals (peers) who share common goals, skills, experiences and who voluntarily agree to collaborate together to improve their ability to do whatever it is they do.  CoPs are effective for many reasons one of which is that they provide a safe place for anyone to say "I don't know" among their peers.

Knowing that CoPs are there to help, create knowledge, share knowledge, enables people to safely ask for and receive help which they can determine is either useful or not.  It also enables and trust and facilitates a longer conversation on the subject area.  Very importantly, it builds connections and supports collaboration across boundaries in an organization.

CoPs are not about the technology, but the behavior that brings people together to connect--collect knowledge--collaborate. Meeting once a week in person if you are a small organization or using enabling technology if you are larger and geographically separated organization provides the opportunity and fosters the relationships of trust needed to both seek help (knowledge) and to share knowledge.

Please follow up with me if you need more information or have further questions.

In order to encourage collaboration, your employees must get to know each other and be comfortable with each other.  This instills confidence in sharing ideas and concepts with people they are not close with.

One of my clients recently began a program where each of their teams would go out to lunch every 2 weeks, allowing team members to get closer with each other socially.  Positive results were measurable after just 6 weeks.

Hello, I think you got some good suggestions above, however, similarly to some of the previous responses, I think you are focusing in addressing the symptom, not the real cause of the problem. Trying to have people ask others for help is like taking a pill to calm your headache. It will not solve your underlying issue of lack of collaboration, innovation, speed, etc.

My recommendation would be for you to first analyze why people are not cooperating? What are the systemic and structural issues you really need to address? Is there fear in the organization for instance? How the organization has been managed until now? Who is leading by example on this behavior? You may be facing here a culture change effort...

Best regards,  

If your employees are not working together it is not their fault. It is yours. There is a lack of leadership.

Leaders are those individuals amongst us who can show us a less uncertain world, inspiring us to work together to make it a reality. Your employees lack this common vision so they don't see how their colleagues can contribute in any positive way to what they are doing on their little piece of the puzzle.

You have to focus them around a common goal.

In my practice, I work with my clients to focus their organization around two mutually inclusive goals: (1) maximizing the return on the productive asset that underpins the company's existence and (2) focus on and enhance the competitive advantage their products and services provide their customers. Within these two poles every employee will know what they are working toward.

If you are a mid-size bank, you are all not living under a single roof, which makes real collaboration a challenge, but thanks to social learning an easy fit.  Just like you are using such an environment to solicit different points of view, an individual can throw out to a larger audience their question or challenge and anyone can answer it.  

Asking or not asking questions is not the problem if folks can perform their job functions.  None of us goes around asking people stuff we already know the answer to, but if we have questions and don't feel comfortable about asking someone for help, it is a symptom of other performance challenges that must be addressed.

I'm going to work with the assumption that you are trying to encourage more sharing of best practices, and increasing everyone's ability to coach, mentor and learn from each other.  There are a hundred things you can do, but only a few that will do the trick.  Ask yourself what is not happening now that you want to happen.  But focus on results.  Higher productivity, less errors, more sales, higher customer service scores are results you can measure.  Training, coaching, mentoring being collaborative are all methods that may get you there.

Before you select solutions, make sure you have really identified the problems.

I've worked with banking clients for 30+ years, so if you want to talk more, let me know.

It is too easy to come up with ideas to address your need. But I am a lot more prudent and impatient. While it seems like those two should not go together it ultimately leads to doing the right thing faster.

The other side of your request falls into choice. Do you want a system to encourage employees to collaborate or do you want a culture that fosters collaboration? These are very different desired outcomes.

Clarity can be the major drawback and consequence of forum questions and responses. There are a lot of assumptions that need to be made in order to render an opinion. The assumptions can be debilitating to a proper response.

There are many other questions that must be asked to render advice that contains for you the best hope.

If you have not already done so, sing up for a consultation with one of the folks you feel most connected to. The result, I am sure will be most valuable.