software solutions / project leadership / agile coaching and training

Inconveniencing people

Posted on September 4, 2012

What do you do when you get stuck on something at work? Do you ask for help? Or are you too afraid to bother someone else with your problem?

This is one of my pet peeves. When you’re writing software, gathering requirements, testing, or whatever you are doing, at some point you are going to get stuck on something. You spend a little time trying to figure it out, but you can’t solve the problem.

At this point, many people are afraid to ask for help. I don’t think that it’s because they’re too proud or lazy to do so, they just don’t want to inconvenience me because I “look like I’m busy” or they “don’t want to bother me”.

I may actually be busy and I maybe I even don’t want to be bothered, but if I can spend one minute answering someone’s question and save them 20 minutes of figuring it out (and the headaches that come with it), I’m going to do take the time to do it. Even though it’s an interruption, that time spent helping someone else is a good investment that will pay off because hopefully that person will no longer be stuck. If I really am so busy that I can’t help, I’ll just tell people that and they usually understand, and then I’ll try and follow up with them later.

I feel that in general we are so afraid of inconveniencing other people, even our good friends. I have good friends who have young kids like I do and they will go multiple years without going on a date without the kids. I’ve offered several times to watch their kids for them (which is not that hard to do since their kids will occupy my kids), yet to this day no one has ever taken me up on it. We’re talking about people that we are good friends with. Yet they are so afraid of inconveniencing us (even though we were the ones to offer to babysit) that they won’t do it.

I don’t really know where this comes from, but it’s frustrating. Several people working together are going to be more efficient that individuals working on their own, and that’s because we can work together to achieve something that we couldn’t achieve on our own. But that won’t happen if we aren’t willing to bother someone else with our problems.

I frequently try and tell people on my team that it’s totally OK for them to bother me. I think my business analyst interrupted me at least 10 times the other day to ask me questions. This made me excited because she wasn’t afraid to inconvenience me with her questions, and as a result she probably got a lot more done today than if she had just tried to struggle through it herself.

Software development is a very collaborative activity, and we will be way more efficient if we ask others for help. So ignore that little voice in your head and go ask someone for help, and don’t feel bad about it.

3 Comments »

  1. You are such a great guy to work with, not only smart, but with a kind heart and patience!

    Lan — September 4, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

  2. I think that perhaps the motivation for not asking for help can be more complicated than simply not wanting to inconvenience people. We’ve probably all worked with the sort of person who exasperatingly can’t seem to tow the line or figure anything out on his own — the kind of person that you stop delegating to because he will simply ask you what to do at every turn and save you no time.

    I think there’s a latent fear of being “that guy” that perhaps causes people to view help requests as a line of competence credit and go it alone for perhaps too long. Because you can always ask later if you’re *really* stuck, but you can’t “un-ask” if it actually wasn’t very hard. In essence, people want to conserve the number of times they appear non-self-sufficient.

    I’m not endorsing this mentality, but I think it’s a more nuanced, realpolitik issue than simply “I don’t want to bother people.” Not wanting to bother people is a function only of altruism and the other person. This encapsulates that but also rolls in concerns over how others perceive you.

    Erik Dietrich — September 5, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  3. good one. going to start a new job very soon. Have some fears about it but this article brought me on track and told me its ok to ask anything the explains the most stupid question is the one which is not asked.

    ashwini — February 3, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

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