Asking for help feels like a failure. It can even be terrifying. Yet, this unwillingness or inability to ask for help is what often stands between us and success. The modern world is complex, and the idea you will walk through life on your own will not lead to satisfying and fulfilling results. No one can do it on their own. We all need help every now and then, and help rarely arrives on its own. You have to ask. In All You Have to Do Is Ask, Wayne Baker notes that studies have shown that 90% of help in a workplace is only provided after someone requested it. If you don’t ask, others may not know that you need help.
You may be proud of your independence and ability to work on your own, but you shouldn’t overdo it. Not asking for help when it would help you is self-limiting. You are creating a ceiling for what you can do. You are preventing yourself from succeeding. Asking for help, be it information or resources, is a skill you need to build to get things done effectively and efficiently. Asking for help is a healthy thing to do, and it doesn’t mean you are useless.
Why people don’t ask
Wayne Baker identified several main reasons why people don’t ask for help. It starts with underestimating the willingness of others to help us. Baker points to an experiment run by psychologists at Columbia University in New York City. They asked participants to approach complete strangers and ask, “Can I use your cellphone to make a call?” No emergency, no further explanation. Just this simple question. It took only two tries to get a stranger to lend them a phone on average.
The second reason is that we are conditioned to be self-reliant, which is generally a good thing. But we need to be tuned to our abilities, and when we feel the work would get better done with the help of others, we shouldn’t hesitate.
Often we worry that by asking, we are creating an obligation. Sometimes, the unsaid “you will do this for me, I will do something for you in the future” is certainly there. However, not always. There are two typical approaches to requesting help: autonomy-oriented help-seeking, or asking to learn how to fix a problem, and dependency-oriented help-seeking, or asking a helper to fix the problem. Dependency-oriented help-seekers expect that the other party does the work. They are not motivated by the desire to learn and grow but by the need to get the job done and move on. On the other hand, autonomy-oriented help-seekers want to get the work done and learn how to do it to be better equipped in the future. Autonomous help-seeking doesn’t have the social costs associated. The dependent approach might. If I ask you for help and you see that I’m engaged and try doing my best to solve the problem, you will give your support freely and enthusiastically. If you see that I let you do all the work, I’m not interested in seeing how it is done, and I will ask for the same help again in the future, you start keeping a score and will expect something in return eventually. Help-seeking may imply weakness when help seekers are low-status individuals and strength when they are high-status individuals. However, when low-status persons seek autonomy-oriented help are not seen as chronically dependent and will be seen more positively. Asking for autonomy-oriented help is preferable anyway, as it leads to more confidence and self-respect than just getting the help that will keep us dependent on someone else. At least, when this help comes from someone we see as having greater expertise or higher status.
Sometimes, the company culture doesn’t allow you to ask for help as it would carry massive baggage into the future. By asking for help, you show that you can’t get the job done, are not good enough, and are not ready for a promotion or a salary raise. In such a toxic environment, asking for help can be dangerous and career-limiting. It is better to pretend that you know what you are doing. Such toxic cultures lead to low productivity and abysmal performance.
When the company systems and procedures allow hiring and promoting the wrong people, it may lead to a lack of psychological safety. If all the company cares about are individual technical skills and experience, and no one focuses on hiring people who are collaborative and motivated to work as a team and help others, asking for help may not lead to positive outcomes. If you hired a bunch of self-absorbed psychopaths who always ask what is in it for them, you wouldn’t get much help. Make sure you hire people who are willing to ask for help when they need it and freely give it when they can.
We know that everyone is busy, and we don’t want to add to their workload. We don’t want to be seen as selfish. There certainly are times when asking for help would be insensitive, but it is less often than you may think. Most of the time, asking for help shows the other person that we value their expertise. We validate them. Everyone wants to feel useful and validated. Most people are happy when someone asks their opinion and help because of their expertise. It gives our lives meaning.
It is often the case when we meet new people or join a new team when we feel we didn’t earn the right to ask for help. We feel that we need to prove ourselves and show we can contribute before we can bother others to help us.
And sometimes we simply don’t know who to ask or don’t even realize that there might be someone who can help us with our problem. We may not even feel there we have a problem that someone can help us solve.
Learn to ask for help
Learn to ask for help. Things you need are often more available than you may think. People are more ready to offer help when asked. Don’t hesitate to ask, whether it is physical help, mentorship, information, advice, funds, referrals, or just a compassionate ear to talk to.
If you don’t know what to ask for or where to start, consider filling in the gaps in the following sentence. I’m working on/struggling with_____, and I could use help with_____. Then think about who has the skills or knowledge to provide such help and just ask.
Don’t rely only on your inner circle of friends and family. Reach out to your weaker ties in your professional network and acquittances you may not know that well. In the Internet age, you have various public forums to ask questions, so use them. You even have marketplaces for people with specialized knowledge where you may need to pay a fee for the help. However, it can still be the right thing to do if it unblocks you or helps you solve your problem efficiently and in better quality than you would.
Asking for help starts a virtuous cycle of asking and giving. Most people are worried that they will be rejected if they ask for something. In reality, people like to help others. We want to feel useful. Once asked, most of us are willing to help and then feel good about it. Once you get that going, people are more comfortable with asking in return. You have a collaboration when people freely ask and freely give help to others. There is evidence that once someone does you a favor, they are more likely to do it again in the future. They already invested in you, they see you as someone worth their investment, and thus they are less reluctant to keep investing. By helping you, they actually like you more. It’s called the Ben Franklin effect after Benjamin Franklin, who famously said, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.” This works even when someone rejects your request. If that happens, they are more likely to respond positively to your second request as they feel bad about refusing the first one.
Putting it all together
Trying to do it all on your own and not asking for help often leads to not offering help either. You are too busy with your own stuff to be bothered to help others. This means you won’t build relationships and networks that would help you succeed. You get disconnected, unable to get things done effectively, and no one cares about you and your success. Not a good position to be in.
Compare it to others who freely offer their help and ask for help when they need it. They do it with a balanced approach to avoid a generosity burnout, meaning giving too much that you neglect your own needs. When you get into the cycle of giving and asking, others will get invested in your success, and the world will conspire to help you succeed.
Now, are you working on a tough problem you can’t crack? Go out and ask for help!
What is your take on the topic? Are you comfortable asking for help? In what situations is asking difficult? How do you react when someone asks for help? Do you expect reciprocity?
Photo: dimitriwittmann / Pixabay.com
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