How to Ask for Help at Work
by Dr. Wayne Baker, University of Michigan Ross School of Business
Modern professionals are often reluctant to ask for help at work. Here’s how to encourage them to do so meaningfully and efficiently.
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Do you pride yourself on being a giver at the office but find that it’s hard for you to ask for help at work? Are you leading team members who have trouble asking for help?
Extensive research underscores the principle that being a giver at work makes people happier, more successful, more effective, and more efficient. Often, giving just makes us feel good.
However, it’s not just the giving that’s beneficial.
A willingness to ask for help at work is also central to a happy and productive work life (source). In fact, a reluctance to ask for help is incredibly limiting and destructive to our careers and lives.We need to build up the muscle that allows us to ask for help when we need it. Otherwise, we might miss out on a wealth of resources that could drive increased success and fulfillment, including information, insight, opinions, guidance, help, introductions, support, referrals, or money.
How can we encourage employees to ask for help when they need it?
Download our free checklist full of ideas on supporting employees in asking for help:
Six Reasons to Ask For Help
There are real reasons why asking for help at work is hard. Often we’re reluctant to ask for help because we want to appear self-reliant or knowledgeable, and we’re worried we’ll seem incompetent if we admit we need help.
Sometimes the barrier is a false belief about other people — that they won’t be willing or able to help us. In other cases, we just don’t know who to ask or what to ask for, which can slow us down even when real help exists in our network.
Read the blog post: How Fear of Asking for Help Follows Us From School to Work
However, we have to encourage our teams to ask for help anyway. There are benefits not only for the individuals involved in the exchange, but for the team, department, and organization.
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. (source)
When employees voluntarily seek help from employee assistance programs, organizations experience much lower absenteeism and higher productivity, as well as lower medical, disability, and workers’ compensation costs. (source)
No matter why we’re reluctant to ask for help, we need to get past it and do it anyway! The rewards are great for individuals and teams alike.
Have I convinced you that asking for help is fundamental to individual and team success? Now, how can we make it easier for our teams to ask for help?
Read the Forbes article: 13 Tips on Overcoming Your Fear of Asking for Help
5 Ways to Create an Environment where People Feel Comfortable Asking for Help
There are a lot of ways to make sure your staff feels free to ask for help at work without worrying that they will be judged or looked down on. In fact, one of the best things you can do is call your team together and just ask them, “Do you feel comfortable asking for help at work? What do you need to make it easy for you to ask? Do you know what to ask for and who to ask? What ideas do you have for encouraging each other to ask for help?”
But aside from asking your team, here are a few ideas to get you started.
Read Harvard Business Review:
5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help
1. Be a good role model.
The very best way to show your teams that it is advisable, beneficial, and advantageous to ask for help is to do it yourself. Here are some things you can ask for help with:
- An introduction or connection to a colleague you’d like to know
- Recommendations for a vendor or partner
- Information needed to complete a project
- A specific skill or ability that’s missing on your team
- Personal recommendations (local restaurant, babysitter, vacation spot, holiday gift)
- An idea or brainstorm
- A second set of eyes on an important presentation or document
- Volunteers to join a project or initiative you’re working on
- Answers to organizational process or policy questions
2. Create a team or company culture where asking for help is encouraged.
Make it easy to ask for and give help by setting the tone, norms, and practices in your work environment.
Zingerman’s is a food company based in Michigan that has a made a public commitment to fostering a culture of helping and giving. It’s one thing to make giving one bullet of copy in a statement of corporate values, but the company has found several tangible ways to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. One is a special induction event for new managing partners where all of the colleagues in attendance are asked, one by one, how they will help the new partner be successful. Any new partner who has been through that experience will no doubt have an easier time asking for help from the colleagues who have already made these public commitments. The two founders participate, as well, sending a clear signal that the company expects and supports helping.
3. Help your teams know what to ask.
Many people struggle with knowing exactly what to ask. In addition to the thought starters listed in #1, encourage your team members to focus on a current project and write down their goals for it. Take the most important goal and list the action steps and resources needed to achieve it — materials, information, data, advice. They’ll then have a series of needs they can frame as questions. Another tip: Build up to asking for help with the big things by starting with asking for help with small ones.
4. Help your teams know how to ask.
A poorly worded request makes it difficult to respond. A well-formulated request is SMART:
Specific (what you need, exactly)
Meaningful (why you need it)
Action-oriented (what needs to be done)
Real (authentic, not made up)
Time-bound (when you need it)
A SMART request is easier to respond to than one that misses the mark on one or more of the five criteria.
5. Encourage open-mindedness about the knowledge and willingness of others.
Don’t assume you know who and what people know or how willing they are to help.
For example, I once facilitated a Reciprocity Ring for a team working on global drug development within a large pharmaceutical company. One of the participating scientists needed a referral for an outside vendor who could help him complete an incredibly complex and expensive laboratory task. It turned out another scientist who was participating in the Ring had extra capacity in his own lab and was willing to help — the very next week. They saved $50,000 and, perhaps just as importantly, forged a new connection.
Even if those you ask can’t help you directly, they can tap their personal and professional networks.
How to Leverage the Ben Franklin Effect
Asking for help does more than just give you needed information, resources, experience, and expertise . . . it can actually change the way people feel about you.
When is the last time you had a feeling that a coworker didn’t like you? Assuming you’re not paranoid and that there isn’t an obvious reason for them not to like you (in which case you should make it right or apologize), what can you do to improve your relationship?
I know this seems counter-intuitive, but the Ben Franklin effect suggests you should ask them for help in order to make them like you more.
The Ben Franklin effect is based on a story from Franklin’s autobiography. There was an up-and-coming Assemblyman in the Pennsylvania legislature that clearly disliked Franklin, acting rude and snubbing him on several occasions. Since the Assemblyman was a “gentleman of fortune and education” who was likely to be influential in the future, Franklin wanted to get on his good side. Franklin did so by asking if he could borrow a rare book from the Assemblyman’s personal library. The Assemblyman agreed, Franklin returned the book a week later with a thank-you note, and the next time the two saw each other, the Assemblyman was kind and gracious. In fact, the two men remained friends until the Assemblyman died.
This “effect” has been tested out by psychologists and there are two theories on why it works.
The first is cognitive dissonance. The idea is that you wouldn’t help someone unless you liked them, so if you helped them, it clearly means you like them. Our minds need to maintain consistency between our feelings and our actions, so we adjust our feelings so that they justify our actions. (source: Jecker and Landry)
A second theory comes from psychologist Yu Niiya who did a small experiment in Japan and the United States showing that participants ended up liking colleagues more when they asked for help with a task or project than when they didn’t. Her theory was that the person being asked for help perceives that the asker wants to have a closer relationship and reciprocates in kind.
Flattery Will Get You Somewhere
Dale Carnegie seems to agree with Niiya’s theory, suggesting that when we ask for a favor from a colleague, we’re flattering them by implying they have something we don’t (a tangible item, a skill, intelligence, knowledge, experience, etc.). A colleague who may have previously disliked or ignored us now feels complimented, admired, and respected, which makes them think of us more highly in general.
Whatever the reason, the Ben Franklin effect does seem to work. Just like any other skill, we can get better at asking for help with practice. If it feels vulnerable to ask for help from a colleague purely for your own benefit (which is a perfectly acceptable reason to ask for help!) then consider whether doing so would benefit you strategically and gain a friend or supporter.
Can you think of someone today with whom you have a neutral or negative relationship? What small favor could you ask them for in order to improve your affinity?
Generosity at Work
In my experience, it’s much easier to encourage your team to give generously of their time and talent than it is to encourage them to ask for help. However, if you want a great read on the importance of generosity in your work life, check out Adam Grant’s bestselling book, Give and Take or watch his TED Talkon the same topic. After all, an essential part of creating a safe environment to ask for help at work is making sure you have lots of givers on the team.
Here are some further resources:
- Article in Harvard Business Review: In the Company of Givers and Takers
- Free assessment: what kind of giver are you at work?
- Checklist: Are you encouraging a culture of productive generosity on your team?
- Blog post: Some of our favorite resources on creating a giving corporate culture
A willingness to ask for help is essential to job satisfaction, career advancement, and organizational success. It can even make people like you more. 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. After all, we can’t support a culture of giving if no one is asking for help!
About the Author
Wayne Baker is Robert P. Thome Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and a faculty member of the Center for Positive Organizations. His research on reciprocity, social capital, and positive organizational scholarship is available at www.waynebaker.org. He is also a co-founder of Give and Take, Inc., along with Cheryl Baker and Adam Grant.
If you’d like, you can download this entire article as a PDF: