When and Why It’s Smart to Ask for Help at Work

We live with a strange paradox where most people enjoy giving help but don’t like asking for it. We fear rejection, loss of control and even a sense of diminished status for not having all the answers. But knowing when and how to ask for support can actually accelerate your progress and strengthen workplace relationships. “The more we grow in confidence and competence, the more willing we often are to ask for targeted help because we can directly connect it to success and advancement,” says executive coach, author and 2021 WFF Leadership Conference presenter, Dima Ghawi.
Asking for help can increase problem solving, make us more creative and more efficient and reduce stress and burnout, according to University of Michigan professor and author of All You Have to Do is Ask, Wayne Baker, Ph.D. Of course, being able to work independently is an important skill, but Baker’s research finds that people tend to put off asking for help at work until they are in over their heads, stuck and desperate.
Based on his research and years of executive consulting and teaching, Baker says fears of appearing ignorant or incompetent, being overly self-reliant, assuming others won’t be able to help, not wanting to appear selfish, and work environments that do not provide adequate psychological safety to allow risk taking and admitting mistakes often stand between us and the help we may need to succeed.
Strength paradox
Yet research shows that targeted calls for assistance can boost your performance and standing. A study published in Management Science suggests that asking for help in appropriate ways actually increases people’s perceptions of your abilities. This is especially true when the task is difficult and you consult individuals who are expert in that area.
Executive coach and author of Breaking Vases, Shattering Limitations & Daring to Thrive, Dima Ghawi, has learned the power of help firsthand. “Early in my career, I was uncomfortable asking for help because I didn’t want to appear to not know something I should know and I was worried about taking other people’s time. Once I realized I was missing out on important opportunities and was able to see help from others as an investment in my success, I was able to receive it gratefully and return it generously,” she says. Ghawi will present a session titled Dare to Thrive at the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference March 21-24 live virtually and in Dallas.
Complicated workplaces
Cross-functional teams, matrix organization structures, collaborative cultures, diverse employee groups and, today, remote working, create highly complex workplaces where it is nearly impossible to accomplish your goals without assistance from coworkers. “Your performance, development and career progression depend more than ever on your seeking out the advice, referrals and resources you need,” explains social psychologist Heidi Grant in Harvard Business Review online. To ask for help effectively, consider these guidelines.
  • Share a common goal. We often launch a request by apologizing for even asking or framing it as a favor. Research shows that highlighting a shared goal instead, such as meeting the team’s sales targets or implementing a better project tracking method, enables people to connect their help to something larger they also care about and allows them to avoid feeling trapped.
  • Be specific. You don’t want to reach out for help before you’ve tried to solve a problem yourself, but don’t wait until you’re at your wit’s end. If you can clearly state the desired result, what you’ve tried, where you are falling short and what assistance will help you move forward, a would-be helper is better positioned to target intervention.
  • Ask the right people. By evaluating your needs, you will be better positioned to identify the type of help that will be most effective. Research shows that asking people with the right expertise increases others’ perceptions of your competence.
  • Highlight their impact. People are also more willing to help when they feel their assistance will have an important impact. This is not a matter of stroking someone’s ego, but rather demonstrating how their assistance will move the project forward, free up colleagues to complete other critical tasks or increase the quality of the work.
  • Ask again. “If you ask for help and that person doesn’t have the time or ability, don’t stop,” Ghawi says. They may even be able to recommend someone better positioned to help. “Try not to see it as rejection but rather just something they don’t have the time or inclination for right now.”
  • Express gratitude. When you follow-up to let someone know the difference their help made, you enable them to experience the “helper’s high” and increase the likelihood that they will assist again in the future.   
  • Consider paying for help. Ghawi makes the point that sometimes the help we need is highly specialized and something we need to hire. “I want women to realize that we should also invest in ourselves,” she says.  
“When we ask for help and experience respect and improved performance as a result, we learn to see targeted assistance as the powerful strategic resource it is,” Ghawi says.  
REGISTER for the 2021 WFF Leadership Conference and gain the help you need to connect, grow and be inspired.

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