I remember that I started dressing myself for school when I was at Grade Three. The worst part then was to button my shirt. I put a lot of concentration on it as if it was the world’s most important problem to solve. And while my determination to do it myself was admirable, the result was often a late start to the day and a shirt with undone buttons.
While it is easy to laugh at or dismiss a Grade Three pupil who declines to ask for help, how do we deal with colleagues who exhibit the same behaviour but insist on working alone and resisting any help from others?
Let’s look at this example.
The Managing Director of a large financial services firm was feeling overloaded by weekly data. To streamline this, he asked his head of operations to simplify the weekly “data pack” that went to his unit heads. The head of operations gave the assignment to a member of his operations analysis team who spent two weeks assessing recent data packs. The analyst then developed recommendations to consolidate some of the reports, along with additional information about trends and comparisons between units.
The operations analyst did a thorough job except that he neglected any input from anyone else (including his boss) about the nature of the issue or the possible solutions. Just like the Grade Three child, he wanted to do this assignment on his own. Not surprisingly, his solution did not respond to the needs of the MD for more focused information, and the project was passed on to someone else.
In my experience, there are plenty of people who prefer to work on their own without input from others. Sometimes it is appropriate particularly when problem at hand requires some level of expertise. However, most of the time, working in isolation just does not work.
So why do so many smart people still try to go it alone? There are at least two reasons. The first is the need to show people in authority how brilliant they are. Working with a colleague’s waters down this demonstration. If others are involved in developing a solution, each person’s individual contribution is less clear.
The second reason is that it is easier to work in isolation. You don’t have to incorporate other people’s ideas, argue about the right course of action, or adjust your analysis to fit the situation. Instead, when working alone, you can treat the assignment as a theoretical exercise. Reality is messy and it is always easier to focus on only your perspective rather than include multiple ones.
What can you do when you find someone (or yourself) acting like a grade three child? Although there is no magic answer, let me suggest one basic guideline: Whether you are commissioning or receiving the work, spend extra time shaping an assignment at the beginning. Extensively discuss the intentions, goals, time frame, context, and other people who might need to be engaged. Forcing this initial dialogue can head off a narrowly defined and overly isolated response. In the case above, the MD could have communicated more with her head of operations and then had a follow up session with the analyst. Alternatively, the head of operations might have had a real work session with the analyst to shape his plan, which then might have included interviews with the MD and his other direct reports.
Given the unconscious insecurity issues, early dialogue certainly won’t prevent someone from going off on her own, but it can increase the likelihood that at least some other people will be engaged, which may lead to a better final product.
Just take time think about it. Maybe this is where you went wrong this year. Plan for the next year as you look for likeminded people who can assist you on where you are stuck.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous 2013.