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Need Help? Just Ask.

| May 11, 2021

by Jim Bruce

Need help? Just ask.

[Today’s author, Jim Bruce, is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Jim may be contacted at [email protected].]
Everyone needs help from time to time. Yet, asking for that help is difficult. It often makes you very uncomfortable. Further, I’ve found, it becomes even more difficult as your responsibilities increase.
I confess that, after almost half a century of work as a professional, I still have difficulty asking for help of any kind, no matter from whom:

  • A cup of flour, to make gravy, from a next-door neighbor for the last pre-COVID family dinner,
  • Help with a particular part of a project I’m responsible for,
  • Help with an unfamiliar form for my taxes,
  • Help with my laptop when a reboot failed, etc.

My complete list of times when I have avoided asking for help is very, very long and I expect yours might be as well. Sometimes, our behavior regarding asking for help is driven by deeply entrenched, learned behaviors, many likely learned when we were young children.
Two examples may provide useful illustrations: Let me begin with a story about my father, a man who did not finish what we know as high school. He worked all his life with his hands. I don’t remember him ever asking for help. He would always do the very best he could, and usually that was quite good, and hope that would be good enough. Yet, though he never asked for help, he was always there to help others even when they do not ask. His greatest achievement, according to him, was to recognize that his children needed more education than he had and that set my brother and I on a path that eventually led both of us to MIT, graduate degrees and successful careers.
A second example may further illustrate my reluctance to ask for help. One year in the mid-1940s as kids, my brother and I were spending our summer vacation with our mother’s parents. He was a railroad section foreman and they lived in a very small East Texas town. He and his crew were responsible for maintaining a 20 or so mile section of railroad track. Texas was very segregated at that time and all of his workers were Black men.
On that particular day one of the jobs was shoveling out the accumulated excrement behind the outhouses — at his house (it had no plumbing of any kind), at the houses of the few workers who were provided housing, and at the station house near the town’s “center.” When I went looking for my grandfather I found him at the back of one to the outhouses shoveling away, along with one of the workmen.
Growing up in a segregated environment as I had, this was totally unexpected. So, that evening I asked my grandfather, “Why?” His answer was as stern as I ever heard him speak: “James Donald, never ask anyone to do for you what you are unwilling to do for yourself.” (This has led me, whenever possible, to always join in the work when I ask for help.)
These two stories – my father’s reluctance to ask for help and my grandfather’s admonition that if you asked, you had to do some of the work – perhaps more than anything else, have shaped my reluctance to ask for help, particularly when I am not able to be part of the solution. Others may have their own life-stories that inform their personal approaches to asking, or not asking, for help. For example:  You ask yourself, why anyone would take their valuable time to help me? Yet, research has demonstrated that we are conditioned to help each other, if only we’re asked. Joan Rosenberg, writing in Psychology Today, put it this way: “… there is ultimately very little that any of us do to succeed fully on our own, even if that is hard to acknowledge.”1

  • You may think that asking for help will result in you being perceived as inadequate, weak, or needy. So, subconsciously you ask yourself, “Can I take this risk?” 
  • You may be embarrassed by needing to ask for help.
  • You don’t want to risk your request being rejected.
  • You fear that if you ask someone to help you, they will take charge of the work and it will become their project. 
  • It may give the impression that you are unable to succeed on your own. “My team members will think I’m just not up to the job.”

You likely have other reasons why you don’t ask for help. Nora Klaver, in her book, “May Day! Asking for help in Times of Need”2 says it this way: “Everyone hates asking for help. We’re afraid of seeming weak. We think it’s an admission of failure. We simply don’t know how. So instead we continue to struggle on alone with both day-to-day burdens and serious crises. … we make things much harder on ourselves by not reaching out.”
If you want help, you have to admit to yourself that you really want help, and then you have to ask for it. And, that is part of being human and is a sign of strength. It also requires you to willingly make yourself vulnerable.
So, how do we ask for help?  Heidi Grant3, Director of Research & Development for EY Americas Learning and Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University, in her 2019 TED Talk “How to ask for help — and get a yes,” provides a process that should reduce your anxiety in asking and lead to successes on your part:

  1. The only way we are going to get comfortable at asking is to get really good at asking. When you do get good, you will increase the chances that if you ask someone, they will say “yes.” Your hope, then, is that they will find helping you to be a satisfying and rewarding experience. And, that if they do, they will continue to help you in the future.
  2. And, we do have to actually ask. Those around you are not likely to ask if you need help. So, ask. Research shows that 90% of the help coworkers give to one another is in response to a specific request for help.
  3. When you do ask for help, be very specific about the help you want and why. Those hints, vague indirect requests for help actually are not helpful to the prospective helper. If that person were to say “yes,” they likely have no clue as to what they are saying “yes” to.
  4. So, when you ask for help, be very, very, very specific about the help you want and why. Being vague, or not telling the whole story, is not helpful to the individual you are trying to enlist.
  5. Avoid disclaimers, apologies and bribes. And, no apologies for asking. No, “I’m so sorry that I have to ask you to do this,” “I wish I had a way of doing this without your help, but I don’t,” etc.
  6. And, avoid making it a transaction — “If you do ‘this’ for me I’ll do ‘that’ for you.” Helping each other is a part of the relationships you have at work.
  7. Ask for help face to face, or if necessary over the phone or via Zoom. And, never ever, by email or Slack or txt, etc. If absolutely necessary, use those mechanisms to set up a short meeting to make your request. If you are asking a team member, let it be a side conversation after a meeting.
  8. Keep in touch with the person doing your task. Make sure you answer any questions they have and that they know you appreciate the work they are doing. The rewarding thing about your helping someone is learning how your work enabled that person’s project to be successful and the impact that it had. So, be sure to let your helper hear your appreciation.

So, when you need help, ask for it in a way that increases the likelihood that you will get a “yes,” and then when you get the result, be thankful, help the other person(s) feel awesome for having helped you.
I trust that you and those around you will have a wonderful, awesome week. And, when you do need help, do ask for it!
.  .  .  .  jim

  1. Joan Rosenberg, What Makes It So Hard to Ask for Help?, Psychology Today, posted April 2, 2019.
  1. M. Nora Klaver, May Day! Asking for Help in Times of Need, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007. 
  1. Heidi Grant, How to ask for help — and get ,a ‘yes’,” Ted Talk delivered June 26, 2019.