In Collaboration, Culture

Last week I attended a meeting at my kids’ middle school and stopped to look at the student artwork on display.

The 8th graders had just finished a project where they illustrated and authored pages of a children’s book by responding to the question, “What do I wish I knew when I was younger?”

I stood with other parents, and we were both encouraged and saddened by some of the art we admired.

The two illustrations that stuck out to me the most (both as a parent and because of my current role at Give and Take): “I wish I knew to ask for help,” and “I wish I knew asking questions didn’t make me look dumb.”

From the time we are very young, we experience obstacles and barriers to asking for help. In middle school these barriers may be shyness, fear of how our peers will react, fear of appearing dumb, or difficulty in forming the actual question. In 8th grade, the consequences of not asking for help may be gaps in knowledge, low self-esteem, and reinforcing a bad habit that will impact future learning.

In fact, the Wall Street Journal published a recent study that shows students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck.Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so.

In another study, chemistry teacher James Kennedy found that not only did his higher-achieving students ask more questions by email than the lower-achieving students, but the correlation was surprisingly strong (R² = 71%).

What is fascinating to me is that many of these causes and effects follow us into adulthood and into the workplace. And guess what? These barriers continue to drive real consequences for both the employee and the company.

The employee, just like the 8th grader, that doesn’t ask for help is less likely to be engaged and less likely to be successful. The company enjoys lower productivity, retention, and engagement.

When employees are willing to ask for help team cohesion and performance improves. Team members who ask for help boost their creativity and collaboration, and they tend to have a better understanding of the team’s purpose and tasks. Research shows that employee productivity is higher and turnover is lower in companies where employees are supported in asking for and giving help.

According to our co-founder and University of Michigan professor Dr. Wayne Baker, “a willingness to ask for help is essential to job satisfaction, career advancement, and organizational success.”

Despite the often compelling and considerable barriers, team members who show a willingness to ask for help will reap significant rewards. As leaders, the best way to encourage a culture of generosity and reciprocity is to model asking for help ourselves, and to teach our teams what to ask for and how to do so.

To learn more about how to encourage employees to ask for help at work, download Dr. Baker’s free eBook, How to Ask for Help at Work.

Download the Ebook
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