You can’t do it alone.
That’s not an insult—it’s a reality. There aren’t a lot of jobs left that people can do in complete isolation. There aren’t a lot of problems left that can be solved by lone geniuses. Performance is a team sport, one that requires we help each other.
At the same time, many people struggle with how to ask for help at work. Generally, this hesitancy comes from one of two possible places. The first is the assumption that people will reject our requests for help. But research shows the opposite; people are on average 48 percent more likely to help than we assume before asking. The second is the illusion of transparency. We assume our need for help is obvious to other people, but most often it is not—probably because they’re struggling with their own problems and waiting for others to notice.
You shouldn’t be hesitant to ask for help, and you can’t escape having to ask for it. So, in this article, we’ll outline how to ask for help at work in a way that boosts your chances of getting it.
Don’t Fear Rejection
The first way to ask for help at work is don’t fear rejection—which is really more a mindset shift you need to take on before you actually ask. As mentioned above, there isn’t much of a need to fear rejection as people are more likely to help than most of us think. But in addition, even prior rejection from one individual isn’t a need to fear their future rejection. Research suggests that prior rejection actually makes it more likely your future request for help will be accepted. So in either situation, don’t fear rejection—expect acceptance.
The second way to ask for help at work is to be specific. Often when people do reject you it’s because they don’t know exactly what you’re asking and so they assume that it’ll be a large commitment. Even if it is accepted, a generic offer of help may not get you the help you need as people attempt to solve the problem their own way instead of what you had in mind.
So, when asking for help, be specific about what you need from them, by when, and why they are the perfect person to do that task.
Ask One Person
The third way to ask for help at work is to ask one person. Do not ask a group of people or put out a vague request in your team’s Slack channel or email threads. Ask one specific person. Asking multiple people, especially when they know you’re asking multiple people, creates a “bystander effect” where those asked can easily assume someone else will answer, which makes it less likely anyone will. To avoid this, ask one person at a time making it clear that you’re asking specifically them. And if rejected, move on to another person or ask the original person who they could recommend.
The fourth way to ask for help at work is to ask in-person. It may feel awkward putting someone on the spot by asking in-person, and so you may be tempted to send them an e-mail or text message instead. But research suggests you’re reducing your odds of success. Heidi Grant asserts that you are 30 times more likely to get a yes when you ask for help in-person. (Heidi gave me a lot of help in writing this through her book Reinforcements.) This may be partially because you’re putting the other person on the spot, but it’s also because you’re putting the humanity back in the request by showing your vulnerably and reminding them you’re a real person who needs help—not a name in their email inbox.
Don’t Make It Weird
The fifth way to ask for help at work is to not make the request “weird.” This means don’t add any more awkwardness to what may already feel like an awkward conversation for you. There are a myriad of ways in which we try to downplay or apologize during our request for help. We add things like “I’ll really owe you one” or “I’m sorry, if I had anyone else to ask I would.” But these add-ons usually just add on to the awkwardness, not remove it. Everyone needs help at work from time to time, and this time just happens to be your turn.
Thank Them With Feedback
The final way to ask for help at work is to thank them with feedback. This is really a method for after they’ve provided help, but it will ensure you get help more often in the future. You may already have planned to thank them or provide a gift, but one of the best gifts you can provide is feedback about how their act of help made a difference. This type of feedback not only demonstrates your gratitude, but also helps them feel more fulfilled by helping you. And that will make a difference in whether they’re willing to help you next time as well.
In fact, this idea that helping others helps us feel fulfilled is worth considering a bit more. Helping other people is one of the most satisfying things we can do as humans. And we’re often much more motivated when we know our work is helping others. So don’t feel ashamed or awkward asking for help. You’re not intruding on another person’s calendar. You’re offering them a chance to do their best…and most fulfilling…work ever.
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