how to get coworkers to help on your projects — even when they don’t have to

Plenty is hard about managing people, but it at least comes with the advantage of having the authority to assign work when you need others’ help on a project. But what about when you need the help of people who don’t report to you? Here’s how to get coworkers to help out with your projects, even when they don’t have to.

(It’s also worth noting that even when you’re assigning work to people who you do have authority over, this approach can make you a more effective manager and get your staff more bought-in to their work!)

Where possible, develop relationships ahead of time. Good coworkers will help out when they can regardless of whether or not you have a strong relationship, but putting some effort into relationship-building before you need to call on other people’s assistance can be the extra factor that motivates someone to stay late to help you or otherwise go out of their way for you.

Explain why you’re asking this person in particular. For example, are they the only person with the knowledge that you need? Did they impress you with their work on something similar in the past? Have you heard that they’re incredibly good at the skill you’re seeking? Tell them! People are often more interested in helping when they understand why you’ve sought them out instead of someone else, and when they feel like they have something particular valuable to contribute.

Explain why the work matters. Someone who’s busy with other work is more likely to find the time to help you out if you explain the larger context and why what you’re asking is important. For example: “We’ve been asked to present at a panel where we’ll be able to get our message in front of 40 legislators” or “I know it’s a tight deadline, but if we get this to print by the end of the week, we can include it in the spring promotion, but otherwise we’d need to wait months to get it in front of clients.” Even “Jane is out sick and I’m having a tough time keeping things moving” can be compelling, just because you’re explaining where you’re coming from.

Be clear about when you need the help by. This one might sound obvious, but sometimes people ask coworkers for help without explaining relevant time constraints – often because they feel uncomfortable giving a deadline to someone they don’t have authority over. As a result, the coworker ends up not realizing that there’s urgency around something, the deadline gets jeopardized, and everyone ends up stressed out. So if you need the person’s help by a certain time, say so up-front – don’t limit their ability to help you by making things so informal that the person doesn’t even realize a looming deadline is about to be missed.

Thank people afterwards. Express sincere appreciation for people’s help, and you’re more likely to get it again in the future. Better yet, don’t just stick to a simple “thank you” but tell the person specifically how their work helped you (“the client loved your framing” or “I was able to get everything in the mail by the deadline because of how quickly you did that”) and where appropriate, recognize their contributions publicly.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. Anna No Mouse*

    I have one of the best relationships with our in-house graphic designer because I treat her, and her work, as the valuable asset that it is, rather than something that just anyone could do, which is how many of my co-workers sometimes come across. Treating people like they have value and their skills have value is one of the best ways to keep friendly relationships in the workplace.

    1. BootsnCats*

      Yes! Same goes for IT. Who gets to the top of the list when your computer is broken? The person who treats IT like valuable coworkers instead of tech slaves.

  2. LQ*

    If they say no be respectful of that. This may seem like a weird thing on getting help. But if I tell you no this time and you’re respectful and understanding, I’m way more likely to want to help you next time. If you are rude or push, “But I just need…” then not only am I not going to help this time but I’m not going to feel all that compelled to help next time either. Even if I have the time. Don’t think of it as getting this one thing this one time done.

    Also don’t just offer the worst, most boring parts of the work. Maybe this is me but if someone wants help and they ask for something that makes me feel like an expert I’m going to be much more likely to be happy to help than if they ask me to stuff envelopes. (Not saying I won’t stuff envelopes, but I’d have to really like you to come in early or stay late to stuff envelopes.)

    1. Newbie*

      Yes! Asking for help and assigning work are two different things. There may be times when a person that has the skill to assist just has other priorities that need to be addressed and can’t help that time. I was once in a situation where the initial request for help came across as a question. I responded that I could help, but that it would be 2-3 weeks before I had time due to my own priorities and deadlines. The reply was a heavy-handed mandate to drop my own work to help with this other project. My business relationship with that person was never the same after that. But there are many other people I have gone out of my way to help because they were reasonable, respectful, and appreciative.

    2. Another Emily*

      My motto when recruiting people to help me with stuff is “I get the crap, you get the cream,” for two reasons.
      1) I’m the most familiar with the project so it makes sense for me to take care of the annoying or difficult tasks
      2) People are way more likely to say yes if you offer them good stuff. As long as my project is done on time I really don’t care if I didn’t do the fun or easy bits

      1. Chinook*

        “My motto when recruiting people to help me with stuff is “I get the crap, you get the cream,” for two reasons.”

        My mother was taught this motto when she would work as a parent volunteer for a teacher in my sister’s class. Most teacher’s would assign the time consuming stuff like cutting out stuff for the bulletin board or marking math homework. This teacher, though, would have the parents actually interact with the students while she did that stuff and, as a result, was never lacking for parent volunteers. When I took the same attitude with classroom teacher aides, other teachers couldn’t figure out why those TA’s would bend over backwards for me but not for them. They never could figure out why, if you treat someone as a lowly servant unworthy of respect, they never wanted to do more than the minimum required. Treat servants/assistants/volunteers with respect and allow them the freedom to shine at what they do best, then they will often work hard to prove they are worth that respect (and those that don’t wouldn’t do any better by being treated poorly).

  3. Jillociraptor*

    The logistical things matter so much! “Being clear about the deadline” is really important. It’s easy to be sheepish about the fact that this needs to get done RIGHT NOW, even when it’s not your fault as the project manager that there’s urgency, but you just add to the panic when you have to circle back three hours later with tons of exclamation marks…

    On a similar note, it’s also really nice to make it as pain-free as possible for people to get you what you need. That might mean that you do more work on the back end to standardize things, but it’s so irritating when you’re asked for something on a short deadline and you have to open three spreadsheets and read the instructions six times to understand how to input one number.

    1. T3k*

      I wish my own boss would understand that yes, deadlines are important! She literally told me one time that she didn’t need to put a due date on a project (and this was one that she ended up needing in a few hours). I had to explain that I prioritize projects by their dates and so if they don’t have one, they go to the bottom of the list. Sad part is, that wasn’t the first time I told her deadlines are important.

  4. Hush42*

    Also make it clear that you are aware that you have no authority over them. Make sure the way you approach it is as if you are fully aware that you are asking for a favor. I have absolutely no problem helping out my coworkers with anything they need but my biggest pet peeve is when they ask in a manner that indicates that they believe that I should anything they say simply because they deigned to ask.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      Totally agree. Honestly, even when I was asking for things on behalf of a CEO, I still tried to avoid insinuating that I felt entitled to folks’ time or work. Of course they knew that if I was asking, it was for the CEO, and if the CEO was asking, it was a priority, but no need to throw that authority around when you really are asking for someone’s time.

  5. Recruit-o-rama*

    When you complete projects that include collaborative material or work product from co-workers, give them credit and don’t try to hog all the praise yourself. Biggest. Pet. Peeve. Is to see my stuff on a power point or an email without even a nod from the project lead that I contributed.

    1. Tammy*

      Absolutely this. I had a great result with a client at work recently, and the result came about directly because of the assistance of a coworker (and friend) in another department. I insisted on making sure her contribution was acknowledged, and when I was asked some weeks later to speak to our leadership about the achievement I made sure to invite her to the meeting and acknowledge her contribution publicly. I don’t know why this seems hard for people to do. Sharing credit is good karma, it’s the right thing to do, and it doesn’t cost anything.

  6. LBK*

    I’ve had to engage some of the more difficult people on my team lately and I’d say my #1 piece of advice is to be respectful of their expertise. Even if someone isn’t great at their job or is a pain in the ass to work with, there’s a reason you need to get them involved in what you’re doing. Go to them in the same mindset you’d have when going to your smartest, most collaborative coworker; I’ve been really surprised by the results of this approach and have had some great interactions with people I normally dread talking to. I’ve found it also sets a precedent that makes future conversations easier.

    I think a lot of difficult/lower-performing people get accustomed to being treated like a nuisance or being talked down to, especially people who have really deep specialized knowledge in one area but can’t do much outside of that. They’ll find it refreshing to be treated like someone who can actually make a valued contribution to the team.

  7. Jenny Next*

    Chiming in from academia: When you get your Ph.D, congratulations! But this does not mean that you now outrank the subject matter experts on staff, or that you are now part of their chain of command.

    It also doesn’t mean that what they do requires little training, education, or experience. LBK is absolutely correct that true respect for expertise is noticed and appreciated.

  8. A Bug!*

    Explain why you’re asking this person in particular.

    This doesn’t include, by the way, dumping uninteresting or unrewarding work on coworkers by plying them with “But you’re just so much better at this stuff than I am.”

    1. So Very Anonymous*

      Or by telling those coworkers “Oh, you’re just being modest!” or telling them they just have imposter syndrome when they protest that no, really, they’re not.

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