In today’s workplace people are often reluctant to ask for the information they need to be most productive. Failure to ask could be explained for many reasons, but it needs to change in order for individuals as well as organizations to be successful.
Research shows that employees failing to share knowledge effectively costs Fortune 500 companies $31.5 billion every year! This lack of knowledge sharing can be due to: no clear methodology or forum, little to no examples demonstrated by leadership, the assumed expectation that we are supposed to know everything. Or perhaps it is due to the mistaken belief that the specific knowledge is somehow not available within the organization.
The knowledge and information we seek is very often available from our colleagues, but we assume it is not. Many companies have built up silos that restrict the very cross-pollination necessary to solve big problems. Some employees withhold knowledge and information because they believe it makes them more powerful. And many people are competing internally for resources, promotions, status, etc. But to what end?
When you reduce internal competition and increase cross-collaboration, the company wins. To encourage this, those who work effectively together should be rewarded rather than those who, for whatever reason, stand in the way. This seems like a no-brainer, but we can all think of many examples where it isn’t the case.
What needs to change? The most important thing is to create a culture where asking questions and asking for help should be celebrated rather than frowned upon. This means encouraging those who do speak up and ask for what they need. Leaders should set an example by asking more questions and demonstrating through their own vulnerability that they need assistance from others.
Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, says leaders need to acknowledge their own fallibility, and model curiosity through asking lots of questions. Edmondson says to frame the work as learning problems instead of execution problems.
“It’s critical to understand that help rarely arrives un-asked for,” according to Wayne Baker, author of All You Have to Do is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success. “In fact, studies have shown that as much as 90 percent of the help that is provided in the workplace occurs only after requests for help are made.” And research shows that people who regularly seek advice and help from knowledgeable colleagues are actually rated more favorably by supervisors than those who never seek advice and help.
It’s also critical to normalize mistakes. According to Baker, in the start-up world of high-tech companies, there is often the mantra of “fail fast.” The focus is on normalizing mistakes and viewing iteration as a necessity for continuous learning.
Many companies are looking for models to encourage asking questions and have adopted Reciprocity Rings, which are dynamic group exercises focused on the “pay-it-forward” principle. This enables people to get the information they need and solve problems, while energizing the group and creating stronger, more trusting relationships. Reciprocity Rings are used in the top business schools and corporations such as Deloitte, Dow, Goldman Sachs and Google.
No matter how your organization goes about encouraging employees to ask for what they need, it needs to happen. A company’s success depends upon its employees’ ability to efficiently ask for and obtain knowledge and information in order to solve problems. Creating a space that normalizes this behavior and breaks down the walls of information silos is critical for success of both individuals and their companies.