When someone asks us for help, we sometimes have a positive, warm, emotional response. We can feel valued, flattered, respected, or appreciated. And often, these feelings fit the situation. The request for help validates our ability to contribute to the group effort. These feelings can be especially strong when we've had little contact with the people seeking help because these requests indicate something about our reputations.
Feeling respected and valued when you are actually respected and valued is an absolute good.
But people seek help for many reasons. Some do seek the help they're asking for, but some have other agendas. When people seek help for reasons other than the reasons they claim, there is a risk that destructive politics is afoot.
Below is a Feeling respected and valued when
you are actually respected and
valued is an absolute goodlittle catalog of situations that motivate people to ask for help for reasons beyond the help they appear to be seeking. It's useful to understand these situations, what motivates people to behave this way, and what you can do about these fake requests for help. In what follows, I'll refer to the seeker of help as Sandra or Stephen, and the seeker's target as Tom or Tilly. Finally, I refer to the task in question as Marigold.
- Offloading work
- Getting someone else to do his work is one motive that comes to mind when trying to explain why Stephen might ask for help. He might be overloaded. But he might also dislike the kind of work Marigold now requires. Or he perhaps anticipates a schedule conflict with some other task he prefers, or a conflict with a personal matter he doesn't want to disclose.
- Transferring or distributing risk
- Sandra might sense that working on Marigold entails some political risk that she would rather not bear. By enlisting Tom's assistance, she hopes to create an opportunity to mitigate some the risk by transferring it, in whole or in part, to Tom. She might later be able to assert, "Oh, yes, that's the part of the work that Tom is doing."
- Creating delays
- Stephen might have an interest in delaying Marigold without being personally responsible for the delays. For example, one of Stephen's allies might be an advocate of an initiative that rivals Marigold strategically. By transferring some of the task to Tilly, Stephen hopes to slow progress in an excusable way for two reasons. First, Tilly is very busy with other work. And second, she's unfamiliar with the current status of Marigold and she'll need some time to familiarize herself with the task.
- Flattering the target
- Sandra might or might not actually need help with marigold, but by asking Tom to help with the project, she hopes to flatter him — to communicate to him that she values and respects his contributions. Whether or not she actually feels that way is unimportant. Her request for help isn't sincere, and Tom would do well to maintain a skeptical stance with respect to Sandra's requests.
- Concealing ignorance or incompetence
- Among the more devious motives for Stephen to ask for help is his desire to conceal his inability to perform the work due to ignorance or incompetence. By recruiting Tilly, he can shift to her any part of the work that he doesn't understand. He might work alongside her if he wants to cast her in the role of tutor, to learn what he can, but that would be a relatively rare variant of this motive. More likely, he just wants Tilly to do the work, and then claim credit for much of her effort.
In Nature, these strategies are categorized as aggressive mimicry. For example, the margay cat has been observed emitting calls that emulate the calls for help among monkeys. When other monkeys approach, the cat attacks and often secures a meal. In the realm of organizational politics, people who use strategies like those described above are, in a sense, engaging in aggressive mimicry for purpose of predation. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Practice Positive Politics
- Politics is a dirty word at work, as elsewhere. We think of it as purely destructive, often distorting
decisions and leading the organization in wrong directions. And sometimes, it does. Politics can be
constructive, though, and you can help to make it so.
- Group Problem-Solving Tangles
- When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations
of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling
these threads can make discussions much more effective.
- More Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
- The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order.
It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with
some kinds of perceptual distortion.
- Bottlenecks: II
- When some people take on so much work that they become "bottlenecks," they expose the organization
to risks. Managing those risks is a first step to ending the bottlenecking pattern.
- Gratuitous Complexity as a Type III Error
- Some of the technological assets we build — whether hardware, software, or procedures —
are gratuitously complex. That's an error, but an error of a special kind: it can be the correct solution
to the wrong problem.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 30: Avoiding Speed Bumps: II
- Many of the difficulties we encounter when working together don't create long-term harm, but they do cause delays, confusion, and frustration. Here's Part II of a little catalog of tactics for avoiding speed bumps. Available here and by RSS on November 30.
- And on December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
- Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
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