Asking for Help – A Force for Growth
By Professor Wayne Baker, Robert P. Thome Professor of Business Administration and Faculty Director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School for Business
  • While there is something to be said about trying to resolve an issue yourself, asking for help can be a powerful tool if employed strategically.

  • Common fears that prevent individuals from asking for help include being perceived as incompetent and the assumption that the request will be rejected.

To drive organisational and individual success, it is critical for employees to receive help when they encounter challenges, but it is not always easy for them to ask for help. With crossfunctional teams, agile project management, and collaborative work cultures, it is impossible to advance in modern organisations without assistance from others. Furthermore, if individuals don’t ask for what they need, all of the answers and resources that people would gladly share are wasted.

The solution is learning how to ask for help. When we seek help as an individual, a team or an organisation, we are better at learning and problem solving, more creative and efficient, more satisfied with what we do, less stressed, and less likely to burn out. It sounds simple, yet it is difficult — which is why a great deal of my research has investigated how to make asking easier and more effective.

Obstacles to asking for help

Being confident in our ability to get things done alone is motivating, but it is possible to go too far. Often, we can be far more effective, efficient, and innovative by reaching out and asking for input and resources from others. When we don’t want to appear incompetent, we see asking for help as a sign of weakness, but we need to question this belief.

Research undertaken at the University of Michigan Ross School for Business suggests that as long as you make a thoughtful request, others will think you are more competent, instead of less. Another obstacle that hinders asking for help is a lack of psychological safety. Psychological safety means a workplace or work culture is safe, or what Amy Edmonson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, terms “interpersonal risk taking”. Simply put, it refers to an environment where people feel safe to speak up, admit mistakes, and ask for help. It is a lot easier to ask if you are not afraid of being belittled or criticised for doing so. 

Frequently people don’t ask for the help they need because they assume no one will be prepared to help them. In spite of this, numerous studies demonstrate that most people we know — even strangers — are willing to help. But you have to ask — they can’t help you if they don’t know what you need. For some, there is the assumption that asking is a privilege earned by helping others. But if everyone waits to give help before receiving it, nothing will happen.

Requests drive the giving and receiving cycle. In the short run, you might ask more than you offer. There is also the concern about appearing selfish, but as long as you are helping others besides asking for what you need, you won’t be. The long-term goal is to be both a giver and a requestor in equal measures. If you struggle with asking, look for opportunities to help. And remember that asking for what you need is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Asking for help in the new world of work

Remote work has made it easier to ask for help in some ways, yet harder in others. Working remotely means we are not able to have the physical, face-to-face interactions that often constitute the way we ask for and give help. But the use of technology, such as video platforms, is a reasonably good substitute. However, in a virtual group setting, it is a challenge to speak up and ask for help. It is public and visible. You have to make it psychologically safe to ask. Too often, when a group leader or facilitator says, “Does anyone need help?”, the typical response is an awkward silence.

The way around this is to make asking for help a routine part of group activities. For instance, establish a daily or weekly process during which every participant addresses three points: what I worked on yesterday, what I am working on today, and what I need. It is paramount to make asking for help an expectation and implement practices that facilitate it.

Changing needs

There is no question COVID-19 has upended the working world and prompted multiple changes, including the acceleration in the use of technology. Technology suits Generation Z’s communication preferences. According to a recent survey by Gallup, almost half (45%) of the interviewed Gen Z teenagers said they are online almost all the time, and many more are online for a significant amount of time. While there are exceptions, it is generally the case that the older you get, the less comfortable you are with using technology to ask for and give help.

Just about everyone who is working remotely has become more at ease with technology. Technology has a way of erasing barriers, obstacles, and status differences. As a result there are more opportunities to ask for help and extend help across age groups and generations. But it still depends on establishing psychological safety by using tools and practices that normalise asking for help, whether through virtual face-to-face interactions or doing it the old-fashioned way — calling on the phone — which remains a refreshing alternative.

How to make a thoughtful request for help

When it comes to asking for help, based on years of research, consulting, and teaching, I have developed a series of practices and guidelines. Firstly, it is important to figure out your goal. Take some time to carefully prepare and think about what you are trying to achieve or what goal you are trying to reach. Once you have defined what that is, you can identify the resource you need. Now is the time to think broadly. By doing so, you will have a concrete sense of what you are trying to accomplish, why, and the resource you need. The resource you are seeking could be information, financial resources, a connection, expert advice, recommendations, volunteers, materials, or whatever else you need. Using the SMART (Specific, Meaningful, Action, Realistic, and Time) criteria approach can be useful. Asking for something “specific” triggers people’s memories of what and who they know. A general request does not. “Meaningful”, which people often leave out, but is arguably the most significant part of the SMART criteria, focuses on why do you need that particular resource or help, and what are you trying to attain. A good example would be “I am developing a quarterly recruitment report for the management team. The goal is to provide accurate, timely, and actionable metrics on our progress.” “Action” involves asking for something to be done, rather than restating your goal or the why of your request. Meanwhile, requests for help need to be within the realms of “realistic” possibilities. Mentioning a specific “time” line is better than a general one. If your request is urgent, say so. Urgency will motivate people to respond.

Asking the right people

When we need help, we tend to think of the same people — the boss or colleague, our friends, or somebody in our family or local community. But it can be helpful to think beyond the “usual suspects”. Instead of asking someone who might have the resource you need, you can ask someone who might know someone else who has the resource. Even if you don’t know who the expert is, you may know someone who probably does know. This two-step method expands your reach.

With an upsurge in the use of technology, you can also broadcast your request to a very large community by using social media or an app, but ensure the platform is a psychologically safe place for people to ask for and give help. Finally, it is worth remembering that there is no giving without receiving, and it is the request that spurs the cycle. Asking, giving, and receiving turn the wheel of reciprocity. 

Asking for Help – A Force for Growth
PR 11 January, 2022