Do you find yourself working on a team where you just don’t fit in? Or do you like your colleagues well enough but still not trust them for anything more than providing convivial coffee conversation in the cafe? Or is it worse than that? Maybe you have evidence that your teammates mistrust you and are excluding you from the comings and goings of the team. If you’re struggling with any of these low-trust scenarios, your instincts might be leading you in the wrong direction. While you might feel like pulling back or otherwise protecting yourself, the best hope you have of fostering trust and getting the team you deserve is to ask for help.
Ask for Help… About What?
What do I mean when I say, “ask for help?” I mean do something that strengthens the connection between you and your colleagues, particularly something that makes you a little vulnerable and gives them a chance to be a bit of a hero. Ok, hero is overstating it…maybe just a bit of a good Samaritan. Here are a few examples of how you might ask for help:
- Share your thoughts on how you’re approaching a project and ask for their suggestions on how to improve the plan
- Ask about a stakeholder that they know better than you and solicit some advice on how best to meet the stakeholder’s needs
- Admit that you weren’t totally clear on what was agreed to in the meeting and ask them how they interpreted the instructions
These are intentionally innocuous and business-focused requests because they open you up to a manageable amount of risk but not to anything too personal. Be creative and opportunistic with scenarios that arise in your team. There are many ways to ask for help that will provide an opportunity for a colleague to help you without exposing you to an inordinate amount of judgment.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you choose the scariest, the most aloof, or the most blunt person on the team to try this approach on first. Ideally, I’d pick the person who isn’t in the inner circle of team power but someone who is obviously welcome to visit that circle. You’re looking for a person who knows how things work on the team but who isn’t so invested in protecting the current dynamics that they won’t help you navigate them. Somebody like the girl in the cardigan in your grade 9 class who was always nice to the new kids.
Hmm… good question! If you want to maximize the likelihood that the person will be helpful (and candid), you might want to make your first forays into asking for help in a private spot. Now, if you’re working remotely, that’s easy. Shoot the person an email or a private message and ask if you could get their advice on something. If you’re nervous about it, just make it a phone call, not a video call (new research shows that audio-only is better for empathy, anyway). If you’re in the office, grab a quiet moment in a breakout room, or better yet, go for a walk so that you reduce the pressure of eye contact.
If your early attempts yield signs of connection, you can slowly increase the richness of your communication choices (video calls, face-to-face chats) and the exposure (e.g., asking for help in a meeting when others are present). You’re trying to earn trust with one person and then to allow the credibility of their trust to transfer to others.
Now! Don’t wait. The longer you let frost develop between you and your teammates, the harder it will be to thaw.
Why am I suggesting these approaches? Well, for several reasons. First, because trust matters a whole heck of a lot. It affects your productivity, your engagement, and your stress levels. You deserve to work with people you trust and who trust you. Next, because our gut instincts on how to deal with people we don’t trust tend to be terrible. I get it if you fear rejection (oh honey, do I get it) so I understand why your first (and second and third) reaction might be to just put your head down and do your work independently, but that’s not going to get you anywhere but eating alone in the cafeteria. Finally, I’m advocating for asking for help because it’s the right risk/reward ratio. It will give you enough fodder to create and strengthen a connection without making you look desperate or daft.
Amping it Up
If the strategy works and after a couple of months you start to develop rapport with the person, you might shift slowly to more sensitive topics:
- Open up about your struggles connecting with another colleague and ask for help in how to strengthen your connection
- Invite the person to give you feedback about how you show up and what you could work on to contribute more (or more effectively) to the team
- Share a behavior you’re trying to change and ask them to watch for examples of where you are moving in the right direction
Trusting relationships are important and wonderful and you deserve them. Sitting waiting for someone to trust you is not the best route to earn them. Find small ways to ask for help and build from there.