Why Business Owners Don’t Ask for Help

In a 2007 article published in the New York Times, Nora Klaver who wrote the book May Day! Asking for Help in Times of Need says that asking for help “makes business sense”.

Yet, it is rare that small business owners – especially family owned businesses – will admit that they need help, much less become proactive in asking for it.

(Each scenario listed here has been changed to mask the identity of the business, but the core problems have been reported accurately)

I was recently introduced to a $3M marketing agency that was owned by four siblings. One of them doesn’t work in the business at all and the other three are full-time in the business. The General Manger (who is the eldest) has been through alcohol rehab twice but continues to drink at the office. The next youngest brother, who runs the creating side of the marketing business was described to me as someone who never talks with his older brother and ignores whatever decisions the older brother makes. He focuses on getting great creativity out of his team, but with morale so low, that can be difficult. He’s also short-tempered, so in the last 18 months or so, he’s managed to alienate close to half of his team, who have left for greener pastures. The third sibling (their sister) is the CFO of the company. She “checked out” years ago, avoiding the persistent conflict and animosity between the brothers.

Another situation: Dad has built a very profitable niche business in a major metropolitan area. He has close to a monopoly on this particular line of business. Dad is older now and lives mostly in the warmer climates, enjoying retirement and the seemingly unending stream of cash available to him. His daughter now runs his company. She’s taken a liking to the Sales Manager and they are openly having an affair. Both are married. Their behavior in the office is that of two high school sophomores falling love for the first time. Others find it both repugnant and offensive. I’m told many are planning to leave soon.

And another situation: Dad is in his 70’s and has had a rather strong, opinionated woman as his “right hand-man” for over 30 years. Dad is a literal genius at what he does – solving difficult mechanical problems for customers. But he lacks interpersonal fortitude to discipline anyone – include his two sons. The woman basically runs the company, deciding what information should and should not be shared with Dad. He has expressed interest in working with a consultant to help him develop a succession plan, but consulting companies have found that contracts never get signed, appointments are post phoned, and advice is ignored because this woman doesn’t want anything to change until she is ready to retire. She “protects” Dad from anything “stressful”. Oh, and did I mention that the boys don’t want the business even though they work in it?

Now, in any one of these situations, one would think they would reach out and ask for help. But all of them have been approached and none of them want help. Common among all their answers are these threads:

  1. We don’t need any help – “we’ve got it covered”. It really doesn’t matter what “it” is, they’ve got it covered. No problems here. Nothing to see, Mr. Consultant. Time for you to move on.
  2. “We can’t afford it”. Never mind that two of the three businesses above are facing serious financial stress. They have convinced themselves that there are financially stable.
  3. “If it gets any worse, we’ll call you”. Think about the frog in the frying pan. ‘Nuff said.

Here’s what I think is really going on:

  1. They are afraid to face the truth. They don’t want to open the preverbal “can of worms” because, deep down, they really do know just how bad things are and it’s easier to avoid than it is to face the truth. Once the can is opened, it can’t be sealed up again.
  2. They are embarrassed to admit the truth. They don’t see themselves as being unable to have a happy family and a healthy business without outside assistance, so if others were to find out about their problems, it would pose an immense embarrassment for them
  3. They are too proud to ask for help. Their attempts at perseverance usually do little more than enable the problems to continue, but persevering under hellish conditions feeds their personal pride that they can muscle through it all and keep a smile on their face. Is this what they really want?

Fear. Embarrassment. Pride. This is why people don’t ask for help. This is why family-run businesses fail too.

Bill English
Executive Consultant
The Platinum Group

You can reach Bill at bill.english @ theplatinumgrp.com