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Three Questions to Ask Yourself Before Asking a Colleague for Help

Mar 14, 2019

I knew I’d crossed a line when a colleague sent me a link to Wikipedia. We were collaborating on a research project, and it was up to me to analyze the large dataset we had gathered. Some of the statistics we needed were new to me but familiar to him, so I had gotten into the habit of sending quick questions his way:

“How should I run this test?”

“This doesn’t look right - what am I missing?”

“Is this what you’d do here?”

He almost always had the answers top of mind, so each exchange took no more than a minute or two. But our thread grew to 50-plus messages by the end of the week as the questions slowly piled up. Even my email app could tell I was pushing the limits – one day, the predictive text feature suggested I add “Thank you for your patience” to my next message.

As we approached the end of our analyses, he recommended we apply a statistical technique called a “Bonferroni correction.” I was familiar with the term, but I’d never used it and assumed it must be complicated. To keep up our momentum, I just asked my colleague how to do it rather than work it out myself. That’s when he politely pointed me to the simple instructions on Wikipedia, a link that pops up even before you can finish typing Bonferroni into Google. Thanks for your patience, indeed.

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Even though I’ve written about this before, I’d fallen into one of traps that contributes to collaborative overload and the burnout that can lead to: I was funneling all of my questions to one person. Research shows that employees who develop a reputation for being both good sources of information and generally willing to help become unsurprisingly in demand. As their reputations spread, the requests for their time start to grow. And as those emails and meeting invites flood in, it can become a major drain on their energy and engagement. Eventually, these apparently high-value employees start looking for another workplace that will value them a little bit more. Or worse, they stay put but fall perpetually behind and increasingly disengaged.

In my case, it made sense for me to turn to this particular colleague for help. We were collaborators with shared responsibility for this project, and he had more experience with these kinds of analyses. Yet there were other people – and other resources (like the Internet, apparently) – that I could have turned to along the way. If I had, my colleague could have been free to do something more impactful than re-teaching me Stats 101.

Since my Wikipedia wake-up call, I try to ask myself three questions before emailing someone a question:

1. Could I answer this myself with a few minutes of research?

Sometimes asking someone a simple question can reveal the need for a more complex answer. But I try to avoid imposing on someone else just to find the simple answer. 

2. Who is the next-best person to help with this?

Most help requests at work could probably be addressed by more than one person, but the availability bias can lead us to focus on whoever comes to mind first. If that person’s also top-of-mind for everyone else, they might not have the bandwidth even if they have the expertise. There’s often someone else just as capable but more available.

3. How can I make this as easy to answer as possible?

Some people insist that emails should never be longer than a few lines, but they don’t always consider that it takes “more time to write a shorter letter.” If I can ask something in one direct sentence, great! But if I can save the other person time by giving a little context or saying what I’ve already tried, it might save us both time in the long run. 

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Ultimately, and fittingly, creating a sustainably collaborative culture is a collective challenge. Leaders can support it by investing in tools and processes that make it easy to manage the distribution of collaborative demands while rewarding the collaborative contributions that don’t always show up in an individual performance review. Individual employees can be more thoughtful about how they seek help from others and how they manage their own generosity. In the meantime, we can at least be grateful for each others’ patience.

Reb Rebele

Researcher for Wharton People Analytics
University of Pennsylvania