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How to help a coworker (while helping yourself)

September 5, 2008

Have you ever helped a coworker with their work? Of course you have, it is part of being a team player. If you know how to do something, you should always help a coworker learn to do it themselves. What if they don’t learn, and they continually ask for your help? What if it affects your work load, and your effectiveness? How exactly do you handle that situation?

You can’t refuse to help them. The work needs to be done, and your boss will ask why you didn’t help out. You can’t get behind on your work, because it reflects poorly on you. But you need to get credit for your work.

This recently happened to me. My coworker wasn’t asking for help to be mean or because he was lazy–he just hadn’t grasped the concepts of what he needed to do. So, he would ask me. Every time he ran into a new problem, he’d ask for my help, when our job was, basically, to investigate and solve the problems. He even put my name down as working issues in a status spreadsheet, which I guess, at least showed that I was working the issues. Still, I didn’t really have time to be working them. I wanted to get credit for my work, without sounding like a whiner. I wanted to make him do his own work, without being “not a team player”.

After weeks of thought and frustration, I decided to talk to my task lead. I stopped by his office, and gave a quick five minute (or less) explanation of what was going on. I tried to be tactful, and not sound like a whiner. My task lead said they were aware of the deficiency, they appreciated my work, and basically “don’t worry about it, we know you are doing a good job.” I hope I handled it right, but I still felt unsure.

Days later, in a career development class, we talked about how to handle this exact situation. My solution wasn’t wrong, but there is a better solution. Go to your manager, and say, positively, “X is having a little trouble. Would it be alright if I spent some of my time to help him figure this out?” In my case, I would have asked if this was a higher priority than the other work I was doing. He also said you should take some time out of your day and train X to do his job more effectively. Because now you’ve developed him, and that is what managers do. You’ve developed his skills, and used some management skills of your own. You look good, person X looks good (or better, at least), and the work gets . Win-win-win. Everyone’s happy!

Honestly, I didn’t really train him. I tried to give him pointers, but I surely could have been a better teacher. I have had a weakness in explaining how I do things to others, even in college. Also, I didn’t ask if I could/should help him (of course, the answer is going to be yes). Instead, I waited until I’d been helping him for some time, and I let them know what was going on.

I like the solution I learned much better than the one I figured out myself. Can you believe they actually teach this stuff? The answer seems so obvious, but I didn’t think of it. Have you ever had a similar situation?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2008 7:05 pm

    Honestly, I’m really glad they point these semi-obvious things out because sometimes, when you’re in the middle of the situation, it’s less clear than if you were to objectively view it. I had a coworker who started out that way, and I tried the method of teaching him and helping him along, but in my case, didn’t turn out so well for other reasons. Still, the method makes sense for someone who is willing to learn and do their own job.

  2. September 5, 2008 7:34 pm

    I did, and I got two consecutive promotions for doing it. Also, when I notified them of my intention to resign, they quickly raised my salary by over 50%. Already, I have played the part of Manager so I am eagerly waiting for the fruits of that. What I’m saying is it is always, always right to help your coworkers as a team player, but careerwise, we should also make sure that the higher management is aware of it (without being a bragqueen and whiner) and without jeopardizing our own workload.

    I guess you are well on your way to being promoted, too! What’s sweeter, a salary increase! Best of luck to you.

  3. September 5, 2008 8:32 pm

    I think almost everyone has been in this situation. I have to admit that right now I’m the annoying person that doesn’t know anything. My advisor has assigned my training to a post-doc, so we’ll see how that goes.

  4. September 6, 2008 8:20 am

    @saving diva – when you are new, that is expected though. When you aren’t so new, it is annoying

  5. mmsmoney permalink
    September 7, 2008 2:54 pm

    There’s definitely a difference between someone who is honestly trying to learn the job and be better at it (growing into independence) and someone who knows they can count on sloughing off to you the more difficult aspects of an assignment. As long as you see the distinction, and know how to respond, I’m all for training/mentoring other employees. Those that rely on you to do their work? Blech – and I’d make sure that was clear in your priority-setting discussion with your boss. I had a coworker who was just sloppy and continuously asking me to check his work – which was (in fact) part of my job. But getting a 60% project to 100% every time wasn’t my job – he should have been providing a 99% project that I could review and approve. I had several conversations with him about the quality of his work before he chose to quit rather than improve! Wow.

  6. September 7, 2008 4:59 pm

    Agree that there is a difference, so this solution works in the easiest case.

    There also is sometimes a lack of innate ability and talent, but… I could have definitely tried harder to help him

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