Asking for help at work is a real challenge. We avoid it – often until it’s too late. But whether you’re asking for support with a task, advice, or feedback, there are benefits for everyone.
Asking for help boosts your productivity and makes you a more effective team member. Not only does it let you perform at your best, but it also protects the time of others, making everyone more productive.
So, why is asking for help often a struggle? When should you reach out?
The Benefits of Asking for Help
The first benefit of asking for help should be obvious. It can quickly, efficiently, and collaboratively help you find a solution to a problem.
There are also some wide-reaching advantages that you might not have considered.
A Better Future
Being comfortable asking for help can lead to better outcomes not only for the immediate task at hand but far into the future as well. By adopting someone else’s expertise or perspective, you may discover new angles, develop new skills, and find new areas of collaboration.
Asking for help optimizes the time and productivity of all involved. It minimizes redundant work and delays due to poor execution. It ensures that the best people are doing their best work. Additionally, it leads to a much better collective understanding of organizational strengths and skills, meaning future needs can be addressed more quickly.
Asking and giving help is essential for building a healthy collaborative environment. By asking a colleague for help, you’re demonstrating that you respect their skills and that you’re comfortable being open with them. This becomes reciprocated due to what’s called the “Franklin Effect”, where people often feel more kindly disposed towards someone who has asked them for a favor.
Personal Growth and Wellness
Being able to ask for help also empowers you to step outside your comfort zone. There’s a school of thought that says if you never put yourself in a position where you need to ask for help, then you aren’t challenging yourself enough. After all, we all get by “with a little help from our friends”.
It’s also worth noting, that asking for help can be critical for dealing with anxiety and preventing burnout. Identifying when things are getting to be too much for you and speaking up is essential to avoid being overwhelmed.
Why Asking for Help Can Be Difficult
There are many good reasons why you would find asking for help difficult and even uncomfortable. Being able to recognize those reasons is the first step toward learning to ask for support.
A cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency leads people to believe that their needs are obvious to others when that isn’t the case. You might convince yourself that there’s no point in asking as people can obviously see that you need help but aren’t offering. The reality is they likely aren’t aware.
Asking for help could even clash with your self-perception. If you regard yourself as a generous person, it’s natural to think that asking for help would make you a taker, not a giver. Compounding this is the fear factor of showing weakness.
As Xuan Zhao, a Social Psychologist at Stanford University, explains: “Some people may fear that asking for help would make them appear incompetent, weak, or inferior.” Nobody wants to be viewed as someone who can’t do their share.
Ownership of the situation is another factor. Asking for help and accepting it involves surrendering at least partial control, and introducing uncertainty.
Then there’s the other person’s reaction to consider. You might not want to ask for help because you think it will be an inconvenience. Or even that you might be perceived as a freeloader. You might even be afraid that the person will turn you down because the request is unreasonable – the fear of rejection can be incredibly daunting.
Getting Comfortable With Asking for Help at Work
Adjusting your attitude toward asking for help is a long-term process. Start by challenging the assumptions that prevent you from reaching out.
People are almost always more willing to help than you might think. A study from Stanford University suggests that people significantly underestimate other people’s willingness to help. They also found that fear of being an inconvenience means people often underestimate the satisfaction others get from helping out. Rather than being a negative imposition, providing assistance makes most people feel great.
As for that crippling fear of appearing weak, research published in the Journal of Management Science found that asking for help in a thoughtful way can make you appear more competent in the eyes of others, not less. Admitting that you don’t have all the answers is not only brave but sensible.
You need to be able to request and receive help to be in a position to help others. As Professor Wayne Baker, an expert on reciprocity, puts it: “Requests drive the giving-receiving cycle. In the short term, you might ask more than you give. The long-term goal is to be both a giver and a requestor in equal measure.”
When to Request Assistance at Work
There are several situations where it’s sensible to ask for help at the onset of the situation, task, or project:
- You’re overwhelmed and can’t manage everything on your plate.
- You don’t understand the goals, parameters, or mechanics of a task you’ve been asked to complete.
- The project would clearly benefit from skills or knowledge you don’t have and can’t reasonably acquire in time.
If you’re feeling challenged, find a balance between taking the opportunity to push yourself and asking for the support you need to do the job well.
Another golden rule is to ask for help after you have a clear idea of what you need help with. Making a targeted request limits the amount of time and energy someone has to spend on your question and also ensures you get the information you truly need. Of course, this isn’t true in all situations: broad requests can be useful too, you just need to be sure the purpose is clear.
One crucial thing is not to ask for help out of pure panic. Take time to understand the need to reach out for help and decide whether it’s something you can work through on your own.
How to Ask for Help Effectively
How you ask for help will influence the quality of the help you get and how the person feels about being asked. Here are some strategies for making effective and considerate requests.
Don’t hint. Make it clear that it’s a request. While you might want to try and disguise it out of politeness or embarrassment, a clear, unambiguous request is far more considerate of a person’s time and energy.
Be specific. A person should be able to understand precisely what you want them to do and why, so they don’t have to second guess what it is you need. Try the SMART framework (Specific, Meaningful, Actionable, Realistic, and Time-bound) to shape your requests.
Make it personal. Ask face-to-face where possible and really highlight why you’re asking that person in particular.
Don’t pressure. Steer clear of adding pressure to the request by framing it in a way that they must help. Also, don’t suggest you had no choice in asking (“I was told to ask you…”) as that makes it a chore – for both parties.
Don’t apologize. Apologizing for troubling them will only strengthen your own negative associations with asking for help, undermining your confidence. It will also make it a less positive experience. Try to use phrases like “I’d really appreciate it if you could help me with…” instead.
The Empowering Result of Reaching Out
Asking for help can empower you to do your best work, grow as a professional, and form stronger working relationships. It will also save time and reduce stress for both you and the people you work with. To do it effectively though, you need to make specific requests that demonstrate your respect for the person’s time and skills.
Becoming more comfortable with requesting help is something that takes time and practice. Try to remember that asking for help doesn’t just benefit you and that people are often far more willing to help you out than you think.
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