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Need Help?

| May 1, 2018

by Jim Bruce

. . .  Ask for it!

On any given day we will each need help from others in one or more of our life-circles – our work, our families, our church, and our social and community activities, etc.  And, we also will have opportunities to extend our help to others.  So, why then, do we have such a hard time asking for what we need and helping when and where we can?
Heidi Grant, Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, in a Harvard Business Review article,1 reminds us that few people actually enjoy asking for help.  She goes on to note that research in neuroscience and psychology shows that “the social threats involved [in asking for help] – the uncertainty, the risk of rejection, potential for diminished status, and the inherent relinquishing of autonomy – activate the same regions [of our brains] that physical pain does.”  No wonder it’s hard to ask.  Grant also notes that while this finding is generally true in all situations where we ask for help, it is particularly true “in the workplace, where we’re typically keen to demonstrate as much expertise, competence and confidence as possible, it can feel particularly uncomfortable to make such requests.”   
Coming from a different perspective, Wayne Baker, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, arrives at a very similar conclusion suggesting that our reluctance to ask often stems from our belief that asking will be perceived as a sign of weakness or ignorance, that we do not like to incur social debts or obligations, and because self-reliance is one of our core values.
Ellen Hendriksen,3 writing in Quick and Dirty Tips, summarizes these reasons for not asking  for help very succinctly:  Fear of being a burden;  fear of admitting we’re out of control;  fear of owing a favor;  fear of appearing weak;  and fear of rejection.
Yet, in spite of our reluctance to ask, research does show that people are much more willing to help and help more than we anticipate.  This research suggests two reasons for this unexpected finding:  First, not helping carries a psychological cost which the person asking for help tends to not see and therefore ignores and, second, because most helpers know that helping has good emotional benefits.
So, how do we become more comfortable at asking for the help we need.  Here are some large and small steps that the literature suggests:

  1. Become known as someone who helps.  Dennis Aebersold, former CIO at the University of Oklahoma put it this way.  He likened helping and asking for help as putting cookies into his cookie jar and taking cookies out.  When he helped someone, their gratitude and appreciation for his helping was like cookies going into the cookie jar.  When he asked for help, it required that he take cookies out of the jar.  If you are known in your community as one who will always help if at all possible, then people are much more likely to welcome the opportunity to help you. 
  2. To be able to help us, the helper needs:
    1. To realize that you need help.  Others are not mind-readers.  They will often be absorbed in their own work and life.  So, you have to make the potential helper aware of your need.
    2. To believe that you want help.  Too often we “play the hero” and are not open in expressing our need.  We may even expect a specific potential helper to initiate an offer of help and are disappointed when that offer does not appear.
    3. To accept responsibility for helping.  Ask a potential helper directly and get their specific commitment.
    4. To have the skills and time to help you.  Be specific and detailed about what you are asking for. 
  3. What you need to do:
    1. Know clearly what you want.  You cannot explain what you want your helper to do if you do not understand what you want.  Take the time to think through your need.  What objective are you trying to reach?  What is the plan?  What are the pitfalls that you see?  Why is it beyond your reach?  Etc.  And, if your need has to do with substantial changes in your work assignments – e.g., shifting part or all of your work to another individual4 for an extended period-of-time – you likely need to start with your manager.
    2. Once you understand what you want, find a time when you and your potential helper can talk without interruption.  If the help you need requires a significant amount of your helper’s time, this is likely not a transaction that you can initiate and complete in a two-minute hallway conversation.
    3. Barker2 suggests that you make your request SMARTly – be Specific, Meaningful (why you need it), Action-oriented (asking for something to be done), Real (authentic, real), and Time-bound (when you need it done by).  SMART requests tend to get done because both parties involved have taken the time to think through the request and make a real commitment.
    4. Tell your potential helpers what the impact of the aid they will give will be.  Psychologists believe that feeling effective is the fundamental human motivation.  It’s what engages people and gives their lives meaning.
    5. Address any questions that they have as they work on the task.
    6. Say “Thank you!”  Acknowledge what the helper did and remind them of specifically how it helped you.  It is amazing what showing appreciation and gratitude does in building and strengthening relationships.

Heidi Grant summarizes it all this way:  “When you next find yourself in need of help, remember that people are willing to give it much more often than not.  Few will think less of you for needing assistance.  And there is no better way to make someone feel good about himself or herself that to ask for it.  It brings out the best – and the best feelings – in all of us.”1
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
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.

  1. Heidi Grant, How to Get the Help You Need, Harvard Business Review, May-June 2018.
  2. Wayne Baker, 5 Ways to Get Better at Asking for Help, Harvard Business Review, December 18, 2014.
  3. Ellen Hendriksen, How to Ask for Help,
  4. Eilene Zimmerman, It’s Not Mount Everest.  It’s My Workload.,  The New York Times, April 2011.

For Further Reading:

  1. Amy Gallo, What to Do When a Personal Crisis is Hurting Your Professional Life, Harvard Business Review, November 2017.
  2. Krista Rizzo, Why Asking For Help Is a Strength (And Three Ways To Do So Effectively),, September 2017.