Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 243
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Social Costs of Seeking Help

New research reveals two ways to reduce social costs for people seeking help.

Imagine stepping on a scale in the morning and having your weight flash up on a billboard outside your house. Imagine having it sent via E-mail to everyone you know. That would certainly discourage your extra helpings of mashed potatoes. It would also discourage you from stepping on your scale.

This embarrassment of public disclosure is called "social cost" by researchers, and it was the subject of a study conducted by Fiona Lee from the University of Michigan.

Social costs are important to a business because they interfere with people learning new skills they need to do their jobs, and this happens more often than most of us would like to admit.

Ms. Lee found a large hospital that changed the way medical prescriptions were written. They threw away all the prescription pads doctors had used for generations and only accepted prescriptions that had been written on their computers.

The change eliminated mistakes because of illegible handwriting, and it allowed doctors and nurses to see at a glance all of the prescriptions a patient was already taking. The system would automatically warn doctors of dangerous drug interactions, and it even offered alternate suggestions. But everyone who used the new system had to operate the hospital's computers.

Lee spent a couple of years watching this conversion, and she noticed some things that were not surprising and a few things that were.

Any woman who has sat in a car watching a male driver avoid asking for directions when he was lost would not be surprised to learn that the men in this hospital also avoided asking for help with the new computer system. Lee found two reasons to explain it.

First, by asking for help, the men were forced to acknowledge their own incompetence to another person which made them feel inferior to other people who did know how to use the computer system. Second, seeking help forced the men to acknowledge their dependence on the people who knew the system.

Differences in rank and status further complicated the problem of seeking help. High status doctors avoided asking lower status nurses for help, and low status people avoided asking high status people. Only peers proved to be safe targets for help. Doctors asked other doctors and nurses asked other nurses.

Lee also found both men and women avoided seeking help when the task was central to their jobs, and that's somewhat frightening. In this hospital, if writing prescriptions and monitoring medications was central, people avoided asking for help. They either pretended to know and made mistakes, or they left tasks uncompleted.

Finally, Lee found that seeking help increased when the task became routine, and that seems like a contradiction of the last finding, but it does offer the basis for a cure.

If social costs are prohibitive, people will avoid seeking help, even if the task is central to their jobs. The cure is to make the task routine and to make sure peers are available to provide help when asked.

In this hospital the prescription ordering process became routine after it had been place for a year, and it was then that help seeking increased. Unfortunately, by then the computer support staff had reduced their hours and they weren't available.

Exposing weakness has social costs - it hurts, and people avoid pain. Yet seeking help is important for people at all levels of our firms, for a variety of needs and problems. Lee's research calls attention to this problem and offers two ways to reduce the social costs: make sure peers are knowledgeable and available to answer questions and offer help, and find ways of increasing repetition so novel tasks quickly become routine.

Reference: Lee, Fiona (2002) The Social Costs of Seeking Help. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 38 (1), 17-35.

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