Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 26;   July 6, 2022: Fake Requests for Help

Fake Requests for Help

by

When a colleague asks for assistance, we can feel validated, even flattered. But not all requests for help are what they seem. The more devious amongst us can be endlessly creative in employing requests for help to achieve devious ends.
Margay cat (Leopardus wiedii)

Margay cat (Leopardus wiedii). The Margay, also known as a tree ocelot, mimics the calls for help emitted by monkeys and other primates. After luring them within range, the Margay attacks and often secures a meal. Image (cc) by SA 3.0 by Malene Thyssen, courtesy WikiPedia.

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 good
little 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.

Last words

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: What Do We Actually Know?  Next Issue

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