Asking for Help at Work
Asking for Help at Work Creates Cultures of Trust and Engagement
Let me ask you… When was the last time you asked for help at work?
Many of us struggle with asking for help. Myself included. Doing so at work can feel especially intimidating, and there are many reasons for that. We may fear being seen as incompetent or lazy, it might feel too vulnerable, we might worry that we’re burdening people with the request, and so on.
The thing is, asking for help is actually really important in work environments, and it’s more than just getting the support, answers or guidance you need. In fact, asking for help can be one of the greatest drivers of collaboration, inclusivity, complex problem-solving, increased productivity, higher engagement, trust and more. At a more personal level, it’s an opportunity to expand your knowledge and understanding, and it can be critical to balancing your workload, and preventing burnout.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- The benefits of asking for help at work
- How to overcome the fear of asking for help
- Effective ways to ask for help
- When to ask for help at work
- Who to ask for help at work
- Common mistakes when asking for help
- Keeping the momentum going
- What to do if you don’t get help at work
- What to know if you’re in a leadership role
The Benefits of Asking for Help
There are benefits at all roles and levels of an organization. In fact, the impact can be significantly greater if you’re in a leadership position because how you show up sets the tone for what’s safe (and what isn’t) in your team.
The obvious benefit, of course, is getting the help, support or guidance you need. Beyond that, the benefits are significant. That’s because being asked for help is such a great thing. When someone asks for our help, it feels really good. We feel needed, valued, and recognized. It validates our usefulness in a team, and puts us on an even level with the person asking. That can help with everything from disengagement, to burnout, to things like imposter syndrome.
All that said, what are some benefits of asking for help at work? There are 4 core benefits:
- Stronger communication and collaboration
- Invites others to co-create solutions
- Strengthens the interpersonal relationships that drive collaboration
- Encourages people to focus on a shared objective
- Fuels people to want to support each other
- Personal and professional growth
- Opens up opportunities to learn and explore different perspectives
- Creates opportunities for others to stretch themselves
- Embraces vulnerability, which is a necessary part of growth
- Contributes to a environment where others may feel safe to embrace vulnerability
- Increased productivity
- Getting help opens up blockages, allowing us to move forward more efficiently
- When people don’t hesitate to ask for support when they need it, you experience fewer lags and slowdowns
- Increased engagement
- Cultivates a sense of belonging and togetherness
- Knowing that support is available if needed frees people to engage more deeply with their work
- Creates the opportunity for people to shine their unique strengths and talents, which is key to engagement
- Demonstrates trust and confidence in a person’s abilities, which makes them feel recognized and valued
How to Overcome Fear of Asking for Help at Work
“How do I overcome the fear of asking for help at work??” This is a question I get a lot.
First, it helps to ask what’s behind the fear. It can be a number of things, such as:
- Making yourself vulnerable
- Appearing incompetent or lazy
- Annoying someone
- Becoming gossip fare
- Giving up “territory”
- Lack of clarity on what you really need
Essentially, we worry mostly about how other people will perceive our need for help. And it turns out, we worry needlessly. In fact, a social psychologist at Stanford University looked at a variety of studies that found the opposite of our fears to be true. Most people want to help, are happy to be asked, and feel really good about it!
How can you overcome your fears? Here are a few practices to try:
- Get familiar with your inner Saboteurs… and shush them
Your Saboteurs are those voices in your head that hold you in your comfort zone. They might sound angry or critical, but what they really are is afraid. They will tell you anything to keep you from stretching yourself because they fear anything outside your status quo.
Your Saboteurs are part of you. For that, they deserve acceptance and love. Give them that. Then shush them. Tell them something like, “I know you want to keep me safe, but you’re not helping. You’re holding me back. I’ve heard you, and now you need to shush, because I need to step out of my comfort zone and move forward.”
- Practice non-attachment
Non-attachment is about choosing not to attach your identity – your sense of self and self-worth – to anything outside your control. You don’t control how others perceive you. You do control your choices, intentions and how you choose to show up. You have unconditional responsibility for these things. As for how other people respond or react… that’s outside your control and does not define who you are. It defines who they are.
- Aim for transparency as part of your way of being
As a buzzword, it’s easy to overlook the value of transparency. Essentially, it means striving to live your outward-facing life in a way that is aligned with your inner experience; your values, purpose, and goals. It doesn’t mean oversharing. It means not hiding your experience. Not asking for help when you need it, is hiding your experience. Strive for professional transparency.
- Take the time to get clear on what you need
In the next section, we’ll dig deeper into how to do this, but a lot of fears can be dispelled (or at least weakened) through clarity. Write out what’s bothering you or where you’re stuck. Write out what you do know, things you’ve tried, things you could still try. Then write out what you’re still missing. Getting this clarity can help you see – and feel – that your request for help is reasonable, valid, and completely ok.
- Practice asking
Never underestimate the power of practice. It’s very normal to fear what we aren’t familiar with, and practicing will help build your familiarity, and from that, your confidence can grow. Practice outloud, practice writing out an email, practice with someone you trust. If you don’t have something you need help with now, but want to develop this skill, get together with a friend, invent some scenarios, and practice asking each other for help.
The fact is, there might be people on your team who perceive asking for help as a weakness, or may even try using it against you. These are toxic attributes that say more about where the other person is at than anything else. Don’t focus your energy on these people. What you focus on is what expands in your life, so strive to focus on the people you feel you truly can build trust with.
Effective Ways to Ask for Help at Work
First, remember that you are worthy of support, and that by asking for help, you’re contributing to a better work environment for everyone. Before you start on the specifics of how to ask, get yourself into that headspace. I find guided meditations are impactful in helping me assume that empowering energy. For you, it may mean taking a walk, dancing to your favorite playlist, making yourself a cup of tea… give yourself that time and focus.
That, I would say, is the most important thing. The second most important thing is clarity. Strive to be as clear as possible about what you’re asking, and any relevant specifics, including a timeline. Clarity not only helps you, it also helps the other person, and is a way of showing respect for their time.
This article in Forbes recommends using the SMART technique, which is usually for goal setting. In the Forbes article, some of the words are changed slightly to fit with a help request:
- Specific – What are you aiming to achieve? What’s the outcome you’re working toward?
- Meaningful – How does your request fit within the broader goals of the team or organization?
- Actionable – What is the action you want them to take? Is it information to be passed on? Do you need them to complete a task for you, or show you how to do it? Finalize a decision? Be specific about the action.
- Realistic – You can’t know everything about the other person’s circumstances, but from what you do know, is your request reasonable to their field of expertise and current workload? If you aren’t sure, you may include a mention of this in your request.
- Time-bound – Is there a deadline in play?
I would add a “D” and a “G” to this, although then it wouldn’t spell out an easy-to-remember to word:
- Due-diligence – What avenues did you explore before seeking out support?
- Gratitude – Always express your gratitude during the asking.
Here’s how a SMARTDG (See? Not a great acronym.) request might look like in practice:
Good morning Jen,
How are you?
I would really appreciate your help figuring out the reason the sales totals don’t match up in the two attached reports.
The issue is that the total sales amount from Source A is different from that of Source B, and they should be identical. I have tried X, Y and Z, but haven’t been able to figure it out.
These figures are being presented at the board meeting next week. This is why it is so important we have the correct number, and understand what’s causing the discrepancy.
I know you’ve worked through similar reporting issues in the past. Is this something you can help me with this week?
I know we’re all working at full tilt these days. I really appreciate any help you can give. I will make it up to you!
As you can see, there’s a:
- Specific ask – Figure out why two figures don’t match up
- Meaningful purpose – An upcoming board meeting
- Actionable – To examine two reports
- Realistic – The mention of Jen’s past experience with reporting issues, and the request if she’s able to fit this into her schedule
- Time-bound – The end of week deadline
- Due-diligence – What’s been tried prior to asking for help
- Gratitude – Recognition of workload and mention of appreciation
When to Ask
When is it appropriate to ask for help at work? In asking this question, we can be asking about time of day, or circumstances.
Time of Day:
There really is no wrong time, although do try to tune into the other person’s energy and what is going on for them in the moment. For example, when someone just arrives at the office and is settling in, or they’re getting ready to leave for the day are not the best times, unless you’ve determined your request is both urgent and important.
There’s a simple matrix for helping you decide the importance and urgency of something. It looks like this:
Something that’s urgent means a deadline is fast approaching, or there’s some other element of timeliness. Something that is important is in alignment with the goals and purpose of the organization, or will otherwise have a significant impact on the organization.
Many things can feel urgent, but are they important? When that feeling of urgency fills our bodies, it can cloud our view of the important – the big picture vision. We don’t want to use up our own energy on things that keep us in hamster wheel-mode, and we don’t want to inflict that on others either.
If it’s a busy or stressful time – overall or for the person we’re asking – take the time to ensure that your request is both urgent and important before asking. If it’s important, but not urgent, ask later. If it’s urgent, but not important, consider other avenues, or even just dropping the issue. If it’s not urgent or important… let it go!
Under what circumstances is it appropriate to ask? Any situation where you feel in need of support is an okay time to ask. That said, working through fears and anxieties around asking for help is a struggle. Seeing how your request fits within the well-being of the organization can help build your confidence in asking.
Here are some common situations when it is not only appropriate, but so incredibly human to ask for help:
- When you’re overwhelmed or stuck.
Being stuck or overwhelmed says nothing about your competence, worthiness or ability to do your job. Even computers can freeze and overload! If you feel stuck, overloaded, or any other feeling that you just can’t move forward with… it’s appropriate to ask for help.
- When you’re facing a deadline.
You can plan so well and the Universe will still decide to throw a wrench in your gears. If you’re facing a deadline and something puts it at risk, it’s appropriate to ask for help. After you’ve reached your deadline, of course look back to see what you can learn and bring forward from the experience, but in the moment, focus on what you need to succeed. Your success is the organization’s success. Asking for help is just good business.
- When you’re learning something new.
If you can’t ask for help when you’re learning, when can you ask??? Yes, you can learn a lot by digging in on your own, exploring and making discoveries. And it’s completely appropriate to ask for help along the way, even if it’s just to confirm you’re learning in the right direction.
- When you are in a strategic role and need to spend less time in the “weeds”.
This happens often when someone first moves up into a strategic role. They can have a hard time stepping away from previous day-to-day activities and those tasks become the “weeds” that choke out the desired growth. It’s appropriate to seek help when something is pulling you away from the purpose of your role.
Who to Ask
When it’s a question of expertise, you of course want to ask someone with the knowledge or experience needed. If it’s approval you need, then you need to ask whoever is able to grant that approval.
Often, what we really need is someone to share the load or help work through a problem, and in that case, it’s pretty open who you can ask:
- Coworkers or team members
If it makes sense, try reaching out to a colleague or team member first. We all know how impactful relationships are to our well-being at work. We don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but it matters to build relationships of trust, collaboration and co-creation. Asking team members for help is a powerful way to actively build these relationships.
- Leaders or supervisors
Ideally, you have leaders who are committed to a servant leadership approach. They want to help and are always on the lookout for ways they do so. These are the type of leaders who truly want you to grow and succeed. They’re also the type who make it safe to ask for help. If you aren’t sure if your leaders have this mindset, asking for help will raise the green or red flags you need to decide. If your leaders aren’t interested in helping, or if they seem to see requests as weakness, it may be time to explore a different environment.
Do keep in mind that leaders are human too. They may still be learning and practicing, so they might not respond perfectly, but if they seem to be genuinely trying, that’s the best green flag.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a mentor, either formal or informal. If you’re one of the lucky ones, don’t hesitate to ask your mentor for guidance. Even if they can’t help you directly, they can often point you in the right direction, and give you pointers on how to do the actual asking.
- Your coach!
I have to throw this in here because it’s so relevant. A coach – either a life coach or corporate coach – can be a powerful source of support and guidance. Like a good mentor, their greatest support is often in helping you get clarity on what you truly need, where you can go for help, how you can approach the asking, and also what to do next, based on the response you get.
- Other resources
There are many potential sources of help in our professional and social circles. If you have someone you feel you can trust, go to them. I really can’t stress enough how impactful asking for help can be in deepening your relationships. You’ll be so glad you did it.
Common Mistakes When Asking for Help at Work (and how to avoid them)
For me, mistakes are really “mis-takes.” Just as I find it more useful to see failures as stepping stones, a mis-take is just an attempt that didn’t go the way we wanted or expected. It’s nothing terrible, it’s just something to grow from.
That said, we can also learn from the mis-takes of others. Here are 3 common ones I’ve come across, and tips to help avoid them.
- Being too vague.
Clarity is kindness. Be upfront and clear about what you’re asking the other person to do. For example, instead of saying, “I’m not sure where archived files are stored” (too vague), strive to be more direct: “I can’t find the archived files. Can you tell me where they’re stored?”
- Demanding too much.
If you need significant help on something – help that will take a lot of someone’s time and energy – it can put them in a difficult position of wanting to help, but not being able to stretch themselves that far. In this case, you might consider going to someone in leadership first and asking for guidance on how to get the support you need. They should be in a better position to evaluate everyone’s workload, upcoming deadlines, and how it all fits within corporate objectives.
- Forgetting gratitude.
People want to help. They also want (and deserve) to feel appreciated for their contribution. Be grateful in the asking. That could sound like, “I really appreciate any support you can give” or “Thank you for taking the time with this” and so on. And always follow up with gratitude.
Keeping the Momentum Going
I mentioned following up with gratitude. This is so important, and it’s part of what will contribute to an overall culture of trust, engagement and collaboration.
After you get the help you need, say thank you and be specific in your thanks. That might sound like, “Thank you for your last minute support. I know it meant working late that day, and because you did that, we were able to make our deadline. We really appreciate you.”
Here are some other ways to take your gratitude further, and keep that momentum going.
- Ask if there’s anything you can help them with in return
- Recognize the person publicly – thank them during a team meeting, or include a special mention in a team email, for example
- If you have different leaders, email their leader (and CC them) to express your appreciation
- Include a mention of their help in any reporting related to what you were working on
- Take them out for a coffee or lunch as a thank you
- Send them a thank you card
Gestures of appreciation are so meaningful. Everyone has experienced moments where their confidence has dipped, or they felt insecure about their contribution and value at work. Being recognized in this way makes people feel seen and appreciated, which can have a huge influence on their well-being and engagement at work.
What to Do if You Don’t Get Help
What do you do if you don’t receive the help you need at work?
First, consider why you didn’t get what you needed. Was the other person too busy, or perhaps didn’t have what you needed? Were you not clear in what you were asking for? Could they not have seen your request, or maybe forgotten? Did they give you a flat out “no” without a reason?
Once you have some clarity on why you didn’t get help, then you can decide what to do. Here are some steps you might take, depending on the situation:
- Follow up with the person you asked
If it’s possible they forgot, or didn’t see your email, try a quick and courteous follow up. You might try to swing by their desk, send an IM, or even call. If you don’t know why they haven’t replied, assume that anything is possible, and approach your follow up with kindness. Try something like, “Hey John – Just wondering if you’ve had a sec to look into those test cases I asked about last week?”
If they say they haven’t had time for it, keep it kind. “I get it. The thing is, it needs to be finalized by this Wednesday so that it can go in the next software update. Will you have time, or should I see if someone else has bandwidth?”
- Ask someone else for help
There can be any number of reasons why someone can’t or won’t help. Instead of dwelling, be proactive and look elsewhere. If you don’t know who else would have the expertise you need, ask a leader or manager who would know.
- Go to your leader or manager, without judgment or blame
This requires a great deal of tact, and some awareness of the energies in your team or organization. You don’t want to seem to be tattling on your coworkers, but if you need help, you have a right to ask. Try keeping people’s names out of it, or mentioning their reason for being unable to help. That could sound like, “I’m stuck on this and the project can’t move forward until it’s sorted out. I asked James, but he’s knee-deep in that presentation that needs to be finalized today. Do you know of any other way around this?”
- Seek support from HR
I highly recommend keeping this option only for times when you really aren’t getting the support you need to do your job, and your leaders are unwilling to help you. It’s a very toxic environment where help is just not available, or is penalized in any way. HR may be able to help if this is the situation.
What to Know if You’re in a Leadership Role
As a leader, you have two key roles to play in terms of asking for help:
How You Respond
We live in a society that celebrates independence to a fault. Meaning, people’s fears around asking for help are actually supported by the society they live in. So, when they do come to you, it’s taking a lot of courage and inner strength to take that step. Your job is to make sure you’re creating a safe environment to ask for help.
Start by thanking them for coming to you. That can be as simple as, “Thanks for bringing this to me.”
Assume an approach of servant leadership. Your goal as leader is to make sure the people on your team have the resources they need to succeed, and to do whatever you can to remove roadblocks. How can you do one or both of those things in the situation they’ve brought to you?
Remember, how you respond to requests for help will be remembered, and it will leave a deep impression on the person doing the asking, anyone who’s around when they ask, and anyone they speak to about their experience. This puts you in a powerful position to create either a positive, or negative impact that will have far-reaching consequences. Choose wisely and consciously.
When You Ask
As a leader, how you show up sets the tone for what’s safe for others. When do you ask for help? Are you open about your own needs for support and guidance?
The most effective leaders aren’t usually the ones who uphold personas of perfection. Usually, they’re the ones who are the most human. They aren’t afraid to be vulnerable, and asking for help can feel really vulnerable.
In my leadership training, we once did an exercise where we were all blindfolded and had to find our way out of a maze. We were not allowed to speak to anyone, but if we couldn’t find our way out, we could raise a hand and help would come. About 7 minutes in, I realized I just could not find an exit. I raised my hand and help came. The teacher lifted my blindfold and I saw… there was truly no way out! There were 25 people in the group and after an hour, a handful of people were still blindly searching for an exit, without raising their hands. The learning was, there is no progress without asking for help. Even for leaders. If you simply refuse to raise your hand, you’re just spinning in your own maze.
Raise. Your. Hand. Commit to openly asking for help. If you have a mentor, coach or higher-up who helps you, talk to your team about that. Share your experiences of needing help both as a leader, and before you were in that role. Share times when you should’ve asked for help, but didn’t, so that they can learn from your mis-takes. Make it as clear as possible that you value asking for help.
The impact of asking for help goes so far beyond having your needs met. It’s something that we should all be working to normalize and to make safe in our work environments. If you like guidance for yourself, your team or your organization on making asking for help safe and welcome, I invite you to connect with me.
- Many of the things we fear about asking for help are not supported by research. The reality is that people genuinely do want to help and want to be asked!
- Asking for help is a powerful way to build and strengthen relationships, both at work and at home.
When you ask for help, you contribute to creating an environment where it is ok to seek support, which fuels trust and engagement, empowers others, and helps prepare you and others for future roles.