How to ask for help at work
Central to highly functioning teams is team members and leaders who make themselves available to help others. A culture of giving is an important one to generate for staff to thrive. As a team leader, you need to develop your capabilities to mentor, coach and nurture your staff, giving them the support and clarification they need, ideally before they even need to ask for it. For effective collaboration, staff need to be able to share knowledge and be of service to their colleagues wherever possible.
However, there is a flip side to giving. As much as teams need to be willing to offer help, they have to be just as willing and capable of asking for help. People are often more generous than we give them credit for, and a greater problem facing organizations is the unwillingness or missing capability to ask for help.
There are a myriad of reasons why staff don’t ask for help, and even why leaders don’t consult other leaders. As usual, the main general reason is fear. People’s concerns go something like this:
- I don’t want to ask for help because I don’t want to bother anyone - they’re all so busy
- I can’t ask for help - nobody will know how to help me. It’s up to me to sort out.
- If I ask for help, they might think I’m incapable of doing my job
- If I ask for help, I’ll look stupid
- If I ask for help, people will think I am weak
- If I ask for help, what if they give the task to someone else because they don’t trust me?
- If I ask for help, I’ll lose control
And sometimes, you might want to ask for help, but the mind chatter goes something like this:
- I want to ask for help but what exactly do I say that won’t make me look bad?
- I want to ask for help, but who should I ask?
- I know I should get some help, but is this the right time? Should I wait until later?
If any of this sounds familiar, know these are fairly common reactions in performance focused work cultures where nobody wants to be seen to be vulnerable. However, teams need to get over these insecurities if they want to be happy and productive. It can be extremely limiting for people’s careers if they shy away from asking for help. Asking for help opens up a wealth of resources that can benefit individuals both professionally and personally, and for organizations, this can concretely impact collaboration, knowledge sharing and the company’s bottom line.
If you’re not entirely convinced, this article will break down a few reasons why it’s important to ask for help and give you practical suggestions for how you or your staff can become adept at asking for help.
You can usually figure things out for yourself. There’s always google. You could always stay up all night and take a LinkedIn Learning course, read a dozen reports and hustle it out on your own. Why risk asking for help and looking incompetant or worse?
There’s good reason to ask for help, which doesn’t just have to do with you.
If you’re asking for help, you could be doing your organization a favour.
How? Well let’s consider a number of scenarios.
Firstly, the very thing you may be struggling with may have stumped many others before you in your position. Speaking up and asking for help can help your organization identify a hiccup and improve operational efficiency or logistics.
Secondly, the thing you need help with may be the very thing that any number of other staff are also finding difficult. By asking for help, you could be helping out a number of colleagues in the same position and helping your organization provide clarity and perhaps better structural organization.
Thirdly, the thing you may need help on, may be impacting others. Until you can get some help to work through a certain problem or challenge, you may be unable to effectively address a customer concern or develop a product. In this way, asking for help can positively impact customer experiences, streamline processes or improve product development.
If you’re still in any doubt about the issue you need help with is a bigger issue beyond yourself, then consider that the inability to ask for help and share knowledge costs Fortune 500 companies at least $31.5 billion each year.
Asking for help is a good skill to build as it not only makes your life easier, but will enhance team productivity, cohesion, collaboration and purpose. Building reciprocity between team members, or give and take, simply makes for not only a more resilient team, but a place where you want to work.
So how do you do it?
For staff, there’s an easy methodology to use when trying to frame questions for your colleagues or boss. Use the anagram, SMART (yep, just like SMART goals, but a little different). It stands for;
Specific means to take some time to formulate your request. A clear, brief, well formulated request is much more likely to get help as well as make it more likely for people to help you again in the future. A specific request means that instead of rambling on, hashing out every detail of the situation and intricacy of the problem, you hone in on exactly what you need help with.
Meaningful includes summarizing why you need that information or assistance. Why is it important? This doesn’t mean the whole background to the problem, but a quick recap of the next step you’re trying to get to and why you can’t.
Action-oriented means your request should be focused on a task or action you need help with. It’s what needs to be done to get you past the current hurdle.
Realistic means to make sure your request can actually be accomplished by the person you are asking for help from.
Time-bound simply means you give the person you’re asking a timeframe as to when you need this by. Of course, as general rule of thumb, don’t ask for help at the eleventh hour. If you’ve been procrastinating on whether to ask for help, the more notice you can give your colleagues or team lead, the better they will be able to meet your request alongside all their other responsibilities.
This formula is simple to apply to any issue and gives you a roadmap for how the conversation with your colleagues should go. If you feel nervous about asking for help, the more prepared you are and the more often you ask for help, the more comfortable you will become over time. The SMART method is an easy way to prepare for any conversations you might find difficult, until you can build the asking-for-help muscle so that what to say becomes a no brainer!
Building the culture
For team leaders, helping your staff step up and ask for help is a long term strategy of building a culture of give and take.
Here are some ways you can alleviate your staff’s fears about asking for help and make asking for help part of your organizational culture.
Take some time out during a team meeting to survey your staff and engage in a discussion around asking for help. Ask your team:
- Do you feel comfortable asking for help at work?
You could ask them to rate how comfortable they feel on a scale of 1-10
- What holds you back from asking for help?
If people are uncomfortable talking about themselves, frame it as a hypothetical - what might hold someone back from asking for help?
- What would make it easier for you to ask for help?
- Do you know who you could ask for help?
- Do you know what to say if you need to ask for help?
Use these prompts as the basis for an open discussion and note staff’s responses so you can work out what areas of insecurity there are to work on to further build the psychological safety of your team.
If you have a high number of staff feeling uncomfortable asking for help, you could address their comments on what’s holding them back or talk through some of the common reluctances discussed in this article. For example, thinking people are too busy to help, not wanting to bother others, afraid people will think you’re incapable, thinking there isn’t anyone who is capable of helping. Address fears head on and back this up with the reasoning of why it’s important to ask for help, not just for the person asking, but for the benefit of the whole organization.
You could follow up this discussion with some practical exercises. For example, share the SMART methodology discussed here, and put the team into pairs to practice asking each other for help using the methodology.
Or you could do a practical brainstorming exercise asking your team to come up with ways they can encourage each other to ask for help.
If you’re a leader, when was the last time you asked for help? Sometimes leaders are the biggest culprits in the ‘nobody can help me’ reasoning. Just because you have fewer colleagues on your level the higher up in the organization you are, doesn’t mean there’s nobody to ask. There are some things you can ask your direct reports for help on and you can use other leaders in the organization to bounce off ideas, even if they’re not dealing with the same specifics in their departments. Even heads of organizations can spar with other chief executives in other organizations or connect with industry mentors. It’s important for not only your own personal and professional development to continue to ask for help wherever you’re at on the corporate ladder, but also for staff to see you leading by example.
If you’re not sure who to ask for help, put in some more time networking to find similar peers and mentors you can appeal to.
And if you don’t know what to ask about, here are some suggestions:
- Ask for an introduction or network connection
- Ask for a recommendation, especially on a third party vendor, but it could be on partners, projects or conferences/professional development
- Ask for input on a specific project. It’s always good to have someone objective look over an important report or proposal and consider who could give you some great reinforcement (from within your industry) or perhaps someone who can bring a new perspective (from a different industry).
Think about expanding your skill set - especially if you’re at the top of your game. If you’re in IT, look for some network partners in organizational behavior. If you’re in academia, look for some partners in private enterprise so you have people with varying skill sets you can draw on for help which will enrich your work and life.
And when really stuck with work issues, you can always build bridges and work out your muscle for asking for help with personal stuff. Ask for recommendations for vacation spots or reading. Benjamin Franklin famously turned an assemblyman in the Pennsylvania legislature with the simple act of borrowing a book. Knowing the assemblyman disliked him, Franklin asked to borrow a rare book from his personal library. Returning the book a week later with a personal thank you note, Franklin turned the Assemblyman from foe to friend. Such is the quiet power of asking for help, that can calm our arrogance and forge connections that go above and beyond our professional lives.
Being able to ask for help is an essential skill that staff need to develop to be part of a successful team that can effectively collaborate, cooperate and share knowledge. It’s also of great benefit to the individual who not only is able to more easily and quickly solve problems with the help of their colleagues, but feel safer in the workplace knowing not only is it OK to ask for help, but it can even make people like you more! The ability to ask for help is another opportunity to share our humanity in the workplace and collectively leverage the power of numbers - within our organization and beyond, within our network, to find the best solutions.
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