Movies and TV have led us astray with respect to drowning. People who are actually drowning are not thrashing and crying for help. In reality, drowning is unnoticed by observers. The person cannot stay at the surface of the water long enough to cry for help. The head bobs on the surface of the water, and then it doesn’t. There is stillness.

That same stillness is often present when people are metaphorically “drowning” at work. It’s quiet. Someone who is out of their depth and beyond their capability is not going to be yelling, “Help me! I’m in trouble! I have no idea what I am doing! They will struggle, miss deadlines and hope no one notices.

In the workplace, you should recognize the signs and consider your options. When someone is beyond their ability at work, do you pull them out? To do this, you will need to be direct and have a clean exit. Meaning, you have to be willing to have an honest conversation with the person and you will need to be careful not to entangle yourself into the predicament.

It’s not an easy conversation. You have to really consider your position in the situation, your relationship to the person and any potential risk to you and your standing. Your approach completely depends on whether this person is your peer, your superior or your subordinate. In any of these situations, unlike saving a drowning person, your actions may not be met with gratitude. The individual you are trying to help may see you as interference or undermining their efforts.  An example of a conversation:

“I hesitate to ask and you don’t have to respond. I have observed <insert here> that has lead me to ask if are you struggling. Do you need help?

Consider this: have a “lifeguard” at work. The lifeguards are people you trust and have given permission to have the difficult conversions with you. Ensure your lifeguard recognizes the signs when you are out of your depth. Don’t assume your colleagues will take on this role without permission or an advance discussion. Yes, this isn’t exactly easy either. However, you have better chance of success when you have a basic safety plan in place. The truth is if you don’t have a plan in place, your colleagues may not notice or want to help. If you want to save yourself, designate your lifeguard.