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Remember the 2003 film, Finding Nemo? On his search for Nemo, Marlin teams up with a fish with a notoriously short memory named Dory. At different stages of their adventure, they need help and Marlin is more reluctant to ask for it than Dory. Dory is often the first to approach other ocean dwellers and ask for aid without fear. As fans of the film will know, Marlin wouldn’t have found his son without asking for help.
But how can we become more like Dory and become better at asking for help at work? Let’s find out.
Not asking for help can actually be counterproductive. It can distract you from what truly matters. Instead of proving your competency to others by doing everything alone, you end up spending more time on tasks that don’t really get you any closer to your goals. Later, we’ll explore some fears which may be preventing you from getting the help you need. First though, let’s look at some reasons reaching out might be a good idea.
Why Ask for Help
There are many good reasons to seek help and advice, the ones listed here are the ones that have been most relevant in my own life.
It enriches your experience and helps you do your best work
When you ask for help you expect to return the favour at some stage, right? So when you do so, you create a cycle of interdependency. You learn from the expertise and skills of others, knowing that at some point you will be called upon to share yours. The process of sharing your skills with your colleagues means you’ll help each other be more productive at the same time as learning from one another. This will help create a richer, deeper experience for everybody involved and you’ll likely produce better work. People seem to enjoy feeling useful and helpful. It can also be quite flattering to be asked for help because it implies that the person asking you trusts you’ll be able to do so.
It helps you realise how destructive guilt can be
Feeling guilty wastes time. I’ll use an example to explain why. It’s a bit lengthy but go with me on this one.
Let’s imagine you’ve been asked to create a pivot table and report from existing sales data that’s been entered in Excel.
You’re not the greatest at Excel and can’t remember how to create a pivot table. You don’t want Mike, the team leader to know that, so you nod and say “No problem.” You feel a tinge of guilt for not owning up to your weakness straight away, but brush it off figuring you can find some help on the net. You run a quick search and find something that looks helpful. You click on it, skim read it, but the terminology confuses you and you end up feeling less confident than before. You look at the time and see you’ve spent 7 minutes on your ultimately fruitless search. Another surge of guilt comes, this one harder to tamp down. Mike wants the pivot table done in half an hour, so he can present the quarterly sales figures to a prospective client you’re going to meet this afternoon… pity Geoff looks so busy on the other side of the office. He’s an absolute wizard at Excel. Would he mind if you interrupted him?
The destructive cycle of guilt and self-recrimination continues, and with each minute you agonise over the task, the less likely you are to get the outcome you want.
Now imagine you admit to Mike from the start that you can’t remember the last time you made a pivot table. Mike nods and asks Geoff if he wouldn’t mind showing you how. He doesn’t. You work together. You learn how to make sure data is in a raw state and has been entered in the correct way for pivot tables. You build one and generate crisp, professional sales reports all in half an hour.
You and Geoff smashed it. And to think all of this came about because you admitted a weakness in your skillset and didn’t waste 20 minutes getting nothing done and feeling guilty.
Here, asking for help was the most efficient thing you could do. It also showed Geoff that your team leader knows his strengths and trusts in his ability. It let Geoff know you’re not too prideful to ask for his help and will probably return the favour at some stage. If Geoff isn’t as confident about speaking in client meetings as you are, perhaps the opportunity to do so will come sooner than you think.
It helps you get rid of misplaced pride
You can’t be good at everything. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. You can be great at some things. Answering quiz questions for example, or knowing what your dog wants at a glance. But for everything else, know that it’s fine to ask for help every now and then, and let someone else take the credit. Who knows? Maybe someone will remember that you asked them for help and will ask for your help in return, giving you a chance to showcase your skills and talents. Perhaps you’ll get to the stage where you’re willing to offer your help when certain situations arise, without having to be asked.
These interdependent relationships and your willingness to let go of pride are likely to make for a more productive team. Thus, the benefits of being able to share the limelight by asking for help are more far-reaching than if it only had a positive impact on you.
Now we’ll turn to what might be holding you back from asking for help.
Fears that Stop you Asking for Help
Often the biggest things stopping you are your own insecurities. It’s no secret that some people absolutely dread asking for help. I’m not the best at it myself. Having to do so makes me feel like I’ve failed in some way or that I’ll fall in peoples’ estimations. But that’s largely a myth. I’ve come up with a few fears that keep people stuck in a rut.
Fear of being judged or thought incapable
I’m not alone in worrying that asking for help alerts people to your incompetence. And, in troubled times, it may feel wiser to keep your head down and not make any more trouble. However, this may not be true. A study published in Management Science in 2015, found that people who get asked for help think of the people who seek it as being more competent than those who don’t. Particularly if there asking for help with something difficult. This indicates that far from being a sign of weakness, asking for help may cause others to see you in a more positive light. People may be less likely to judge us for our limitations than we imagine.
Fear of rejection
Our fear of hearing the word no might keep us from seeking aid. If this fear is paired with an assumption that others already have too much to deal with, we might be even less likely to ask for help. A 2008 study found evidence to suggest people are more likely to say yes to our request than we think. There has since been further research that suggests people will put more effort into helping someone who asks for their help than is typically assumed. When people who have lower status in the workplace do ask for help, they are more likely to seek it from individuals who hold a more senior position than from those who have lower status. You could use that little nugget of information to help temper your fear of being judged.
Remember, if you seek the aid of someone senior and more experienced, that person might realise you’ve asked them because you believe their help will be useful and valuable. That might make them say yes more readily than you thought, and put more effort into helping solve your problem than you’d hoped.
Fear others won’t benefit from helping you
We tend to focus mainly on the costs we’re imposing on others when we ask for help. We don’t weigh the benefits someone might get from helping us nearly so heavily. Research suggests that helping someone could lift the helper’s mood and can thereby have a beneficial effect on that person’s wellbeing.
Asking for help also has the mutual advantage of fostering social connection. By seeking support and being supportive in return, you can actually strengthen relationships. Being given the chance to help someone you know can be more emotionally rewarding than helping lots of people you have no personal connection to, as you do when you give to charity.
It’s important to remember not to take the word “no” too personally if someone can’t help you. We have a natural tendency to think that someone saying no must be because of some fault of ours, or something we’ve done. But refusals are often because of something entirely unrelated to you. So don’t be disheartened, instead try asking someone else, or asking that same person at another time.
Soon, we’ll investigate how best to approach someone for help. Next though, let’s look at some situations when it might be wise to do so.
When Is It a Good Idea to Ask for Help?
Some people would travel alone through Death Valley without water rather than ask for help. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but you get the point.
But there are times when asking for help is not only sensible, it’s also the most productive action you could take.
Let’s look at some situations this might apply to.
When you don’t fully understand instructions
If you’re presented with instructions that aren’t clear, or think you may have misunderstood them, it may be wise to ask for help.
It’s not uncommon for bosses to assume their peers and subordinates will intuitively understand what is required of them. But, this isn’t always true, so asking for help might prove productive and help avoid confusion.
Asking for clarification from your boss will help you get to grips with the task at hand and what you need to do. By taking an extra few minutes to explain, your boss can help set you up to be more productive. You can get on with it at once when you have a complete understanding of what’s expected of you, rather than sitting worrying about the work and not getting anything done. The next situation we’ll look at is akin to this one but arguably even more crucial.
When you know you’re out of your depth
When you don’t know what you’re doing, it takes extra courage to ask for help because you’re exposing your vulnerabilities. When you’re new to a role and taking over someone’s responsibilities, it’s not expected that you’ll know the minutiae of the job. Asking for help from whoever you’re taking over from is not only wise, it’s also productive, as you’ll be able to learn exactly what you’ll be doing in your new position. On top of that, asking for advice from someone much more experienced in that job is unlikely to harm your credibility.
When you’re uncertain of a deadline
Want to find yourself in a situation where you discover you’ve been working on a sequence of tasks that need to be completed within a month, blissfully unaware that the stuff you’ve been leaving aside actually needs to be done within a week? Me neither. It would probably cause me loads of avoidable stress and aggravation.
Give yourself the best chance of avoiding it by asking for help when you’re not sure of the deadline. Then you’ll be able to prioritise more effectively.
If you’re running out of time
If a deadline is creeping closer and you’re not sure how you’re going to finish the work, reach out for help. It will save time and is likely to help you to find an easier way to complete your work on time. You’ll find that once you’ve sussed out the simplest way to do your work, you’ll have clear direction and your indecision and uncertainty will evaporate. When that happens, you’ll be able to continue your work knowing that with the help of your colleagues, you will finish the job.
When you mess up
When you mess something up, it’s embarrassing. But you’re human so it’s going to happen sooner or later. But how you react to making mistakes is often more important than what the error was in the first place. Rather than trying to pretend you never made a mistake — a bad idea that can end up causing more trouble than your initial mistake would have done if it was resolved quickly — get help from the relevant people as soon as you can. Ensuring you go to the right people is essential because you want to avoid causing confusion by seeking help from the wrong department or team and end up exacerbating your problem.
Remember, you’re not the first person ever to make a hash of something at work. Nor will you be the last.
It’s time to talk about how we should approach others for aid.
How to Ask for Help (without Being a Berk)
In most areas of life, the way you approach things matters and impacts the results you’re likely to get. Asking for help is no exception. Here are 3 tips to bear in mind.
Make sure you’ve tried to solve the problem yourself
It’s a good idea to do this for two reasons.
- You might learn something new and solve the problem yourself.
- You’ll be more informed about the problem and more able to answer questions about it if you do end up getting help.
The latter of these two points shows your competence too. It shows people you didn’t just panic and call for help with no thought whatsoever. On the other hand, don’t make yourself a martyr. After all, agonising over something for hours before finally deciding to get help is rarely productive.
Set up a meeting
If you think the task you need help with is complex and needs a bit of explaining, it may be better to set up a meeting with the person you want to beg a favour of than to just go over and start asking lots of questions.
By sending a single email asking if they’re able to meet soon to discuss something, you’re showing that you don’t expect them to be able to drop everything to come and help you immediately and that you’re happy to fit in with their schedule.
Respect peoples’ time and share the credit
Before you hit one of your co-workers or managers with a barrage of questions, ask if they have time to help with something. If they’re not available, they’ll say so and you can move on and ask someone else if they have a few minutes to spare.
That way you show your co-workers you respect their time and appreciate any help given and will share the rewards of your success with them.
If you can do it well, reaching out to others will help you create and maintain strong relationships in the workplace. Building strong working relationships is a cornerstone of every business, is key to cultivating a good work culture, and is a skill set that will stand you in good stead for future career advancement.
We’ve covered why asking for help might be a good thing and what might stop you seeking it out. I hope that by giving you some ideas as to when and how you might solicit help, you’ll feel more confident about doing it yourself. Apply some of these tips to your life, along with a little good old-fashioned give and take. You’ll likely become more productive than you were before you mastered the multi-layered art of asking for help.
So become like Dory and be open to asking for help, doing so in the right way and without fear. You and your teammates will soon be swimming upstream to victory!