Since I advocate for asking for help at work on pretty much a full-time basis, an episode of the Daily, the New York Times’ daily news podcast caught my attention last week.
It was about the spread of the Coronavirus across China.
In early January of this year, Javier C. Hernández, a New York Times correspondent based in Beijing, started hearing reports about a pneumonia-like virus that was affecting a city in central China called Wuhan.
The official narrative was that the virus was transmitted only from animals to humans (not from human-to-human), and was originating from one meat market in Wuhan. Chinese officials said the outbreak was under control, and the Coronavirus was highly treatable.
When Hernández went to Wuhan (with a face mask on) to investigate, he found that the problem was far more widespread than originally thought. The virus was spreading rapidly from person-to-person. Hospitals were not accurately testing, diagnosing, tracking, or treating cases.
Finally the Chinese government placed the entire city of Wuhan on lockdown, including shutting down buses, ferries, trains, and even local transportation. But despite their extreme efforts, the outbreak and the death toll has continued to grow.
This Isn’t the First Time
The Chinese government had a history of downplaying outbreaks; the SARS outbreak 17 years ago spread quickly because the Chinese government let the outbreak go unchecked for months before telling the world. Since that outbreak, the government has lauded impressive public health reforms, including improved disease reporting and a promise to be more transparent with the rest of the world.
So what happened?
Why did the Chinese government wait so long?
We’ve heard so much about the Chinese government’s authoritarian hold on its people and Big Brother-style governing tactics. Why couldn’t they identify and address the Coronavirus outbreak before it got so out of hand?
It turns out that China’s authoritarian government culture actually may have set the stage for the crisis.
The Communist Party narrative is that China is strong, growing, ascendant, and dominant. Anything that counters that narrative is a problem, and anyone who counters that narrative is a problem.
This dynamic creates a strange incentive structure where everyone, from local party officials on down to front-line healthcare workers are afraid to rock the boat, report a problem, and ask for help. Everyone is expected to be almost perfect, and if you aren’t, you lose your job, your power, your livelihood.
Instead, they cover up, deny, and hide evidence, hoping they can get the problem under control without needing any help (or any punishment) from the national leadership.
Undoubtedly this works with lots of things, but it didn’t work with SARS and it didn’t work with the Coronavirus.
In Wuhan, it wasn’t just local Communist party officials who kept the Coronavirus outbreak quiet; even ambulance workers and hospital staff who knew the problem was bigger than reported were afraid to rock the boat.
When you have a culture where people are afraid to ask for help or point out problems, the results can be disastrous. That’s true whether it’s a country, a company, a family, or any group of people.
We Have to Make it Safe for People to Ask for Help
Which brings me back to the topic I think about every day: how to make it easy and safe for people to ask for help.
Admittedly, the stakes are not this high on any random workday in Corporate America.
However, it’s also true that although few companies have an authoritarian rule that can rival the Communist party, many employees still feel unsafe asking for help or advice at work. They’ve been taught to bring “solutions not problems.”
It’s worth asking ourselves: do we encourage people to ask for help and raise issues that they see? Or do we tell them not to bring it up until they have it under control?
For ideas on how to make a company or group culture that makes it safe to ask for help, download our free checklist.Checklist: Make It Easy to Ask for Help