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Need Help? Be Specific.

When I was working at a Fortune 500 company, my division was internally merging with a culturally different organization. It was essentially the Gen X crowd versus the Baby Boomer generation. One side would list major accomplishments as; their wedding day, the birth of a child, or a trip abroad they had saved up for. The other; President's Club, numbers they hit, problems they solved. Two different worlds - united in the fact that we all very much disliked our new boss. This boss did do one thing very right though. He saw that the integration was not smooth, so he hired outside help to bring us together.

We escaped to an island and embarked on a number of team building exercises. They were mostly awkward, but occasionally fun. At the end of each one we would debrief and discuss what we learned - what went right, what went wrong. Inevitably, each one ended with the realization that we needed clearer communication and to be more helpful toward each other. One of our last exercises changed the dynamic of the team, my place on it and altered my approach toward communication, particularly when asking for help.

We were paired up into several teams, deposited into a large field and instructed to use the compass each team was provided to race around key areas of the meadow. It was orienteering on steroids. This brought up the competitive spirit unlike any of the other exercises. The person I was teamed with was a very nice guy, but an over accommodating follower with no innate leadership that I could tell. As the race began I instantly forgot my cub scout training on how to actually adjust and read a compass. I asked for help, but my coworkers, some of them very good friends, began to mock me. They were off and racing, and each time they passed by they would taunt us, but never offered assistance. It began to tick me off and strengthened my resolve. We eventually got instruction from the facilitator and after a five minute delay, my partner and I were able to surge up to a second place finish.

During our after action review I was uncharacteristically livid. "What had happened to the many hours we had already spent learning the value of team, and communication, and helpfulness? Were those other exercises just a waste of time, had we learned nothing?" I quizzed angrily. Many were shocked by my red faced outburst, but they understood the point and my passion that it had aroused. One colleague explained by way of a future solution. "You just said, someone help - you weren't specific. What help did you need and who did you want it from? I'm competitive, and was so busy I didn't even hear you. It's like the tons of email I get everyday. When someone copies in the world looking for help, I tend to ignore it. I figure someone else on the distribution list will help. The fact is, everyone is busy and no one ever helps, because they don't know how."

He continued, "Be specific in what you want and who you want it from." Poignant words, which I found to be immediately true. In the heat of the moment, when I had approached the facilitator, I addressed him by name and specifically asked him if he could give me a quick refresher on how to set and read the compass. He did, and as a result I got exactly what I wanted.

The team came together fairly quickly after that weekend away. There were too many other influences that prevented us from becoming a truly high performing team, but we communicated with each other exceptionally well, and we were always able to get the help we needed from each other, because instead of standing in a field shouting to the heavens, we asked specific people what specific help we needed. The results were faster and much more satisfying.