How to ask for help with work

20 June 2019 -

Colleagues in discussionAsking for help is a valuable skill to develop. But it’s not as easy as you think

Essential learnings:

  • Be clear about what you need
  • Avoid negative or apologetic language
  • Pay it forward

Few of us enjoy asking for help. Neuroscience and psychology researchers tell us that uncertainty and risk of rejection activate the same brain regions that physical pain does.

Employees in their first job are often uncertain about asking for help. They worry if it would be perceived positively or negatively, so they avoid asking altogether. In other workplaces, the culture may actively discourage asking for help.

Problem-solving is a valuable skill that can really only be learned through practice. A wide range of problem-solving models and techniques are available. But the most effective problem-solving method isn’t a solo pursuit: involving others is an important part of the process.

Don’t assume that it’s up to you to solve every problem on your own. Ascertain who shares that responsibility and seek their help and advice as appropriate. Hold a brainstorming meeting to examine all the available solutions. For more advice on this, see CMI’s Solving Problems Checklist 012.

Of course, asking for help might mean having a difficult conversation. We all tend to put off difficult conversations because of the intensity and complexity of the emotions they can arouse – on both sides. Fear of how people will react and whether you will be able to handle their reactions, feelings of vulnerability or concern about a loss of control can make us all reluctant to ask for help. However, by adopting the right approach and preparing yourself carefully, you can maximise your ability to handle the conversation and secure the help you need. For more on this, try reading CMI’s Handling Difficult Conversations Checklist 274.

Perhaps the easiest way to overcome the pain of asking for help is to realise that most people are surprisingly willing to lend a hand. The key to tapping into this willingness is to put them in control of the decision. That means avoiding any language suggesting that you or someone else is instructing them to help, that they should help, or that they have no choice but to do so. This includes prefaces such as “May I ask you a favour?” which make people feel trapped, or apologies such as “I feel terrible asking you for this, but…” which make the experience seem less positive.

Instead, simply be very clear about what you need. For example, when asking for help with reviewing a client proposal, you might say, “Would you please review this before I send it to ABC? Your input really helped my previous pitch to XYZ succeed.”

If possible, give people a choice in how and when they help you, and be willing to accept alternatives to your original request. You want helpers to give what they can – and to make them feel useful.

Asking specific questions about your problem helps show your colleague that you're totally engaged and actively trying to resolve the issue alongside them. Once you get the precise help you need, be ready to take back control immediately – it's your project, after all and your colleague has other things on their plate. However, offer to update them at the end of the project, and remember to do so.

One last thing to remember: help others when asked. Lending a hand does wonders for building goodwill. If you regularly offer to assist others, your occasional request for help won’t undermine their confidence in you.

CMI offers a range of useful resources that can help you with your work. There is also a professional standard that can structure your development.

When you face challenges in the workplace, don’t forget to check ManagementDirect to see CMI’s bank of support resources. To log in to ManagementDirect, click here 

Image: Shutterstock

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