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How to ask for help at work (review of All You Have to Do is Ask)

I still don’t have an answer to the one question my boss always asks at the end of our one-on-one meetings.

What can I do to help make it easier for you to do your job?

I keep drawing a blank because this has never been a frequently asked question throughout my career. And I’ve brought that on myself, having spent too many years being the go-it-alone, stubbornly self-reliant lone wolf.

Not asking for directions can make lone wolves lousy travelling companions. Not asking for direction, guidance or help at work can be a career-limiting, or even a job-ending, move.

AllYouHaveToDoIsAsk_ByWayneBaker_BookCoverImage“Not asking for help is one of the most self-limiting, self-constraining, even self-destructive decisions we can make,” says Wayne Baker, University of Michigan business professor and author of All You Have to Do is Ask. “Without the help and assistance of others, we don’t receive the resources that we need to get our work done, to solve problems, and to fulfill our missions in the world.”

We have our reasons for not asking for help. We underestimate just how ready, willing and able people are to lend a hand. We believe that asking for help makes us look weak, incapable, incompetent, lazy or dependent. We fool ourselves into thinking we can somehow do it all on our own. We feel we haven’t earned the privilege to ask for help, we don’t know how to make a request or we work for organizations where asking for help just isn’t done and getting help is near impossible.

While we tell ourselves it’s better to give than to receive, Baker believes it’s best if we regularly do both. “The two acts are two sides of the same coin. There is no giving without receiving and there is now receiving without giving. And it’s the request that starts the wheel turning.”

To ask for and then get what we need, Baker recommends making requests that are specific, personally meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-based. “When others know why you are making the request, they are more motivated to respond,” says Baker. “They empathize with you.”

Leaders need to lead by example, stringing together a psychological safety net and creating a “thanks for asking” culture that recognizes and rewards people who request a helping hand.

One way to achieve this is by setting up reciprocity rings. Up to 24 people get together and take turns making both a personal and work-related request. Asking for help is the price of admission to a reciprocity ring. People in the ring can ask for information, advice, recommendations, referrals and extra resources. Anyone who can help in any way steps forward.

You can also introduce five-minute favours. Commandeer a room and tape sheets of flip chart paper to the walls. Have employees write requests on the top half of the sheets and add their names to the bottom of sheets where they can offer assistance.

Yet another suggestion is to write one problem or question a week on a whiteboard and invite employees to weigh in with solutions and answers.  Review all the ideas on Friday afternoons.

And as a leader, you too can ask for help. Baker highlights a CEO and chairman of the board who, at an employee town hall, asked for everyone’s help in meeting his three personal goals – “stay happily married to my wife of some 30 years, don’t miss any important dates / events for my two daughters back home, lose 20 pounds and eat better.” One employee offered to be the CEO’s running partner while others made sure he skipped desserts and ate salads.

“Most people are in fact willing to help – if they are asked,” says Baker. “But most people don’t ask and as a result, all those answers, solutions and resources are being left untouched, unused and wasted – for no good reason.”

Lone wolves take note. It’s time we ditch the stubborn independence and start asking for help.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Wondering if there’s more than this? You’re ready to climb the second mountain (review)

mountain climbYou went to a good school, graduated into a great job and built yourself a rewarding career.

You’ve earned serious money, status and power.

You’re living the dream and life is good.

But what if it could be exponentially better?

“Most of the time we aim too low,” says David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of The Second Mountain. “We walk in shoes too small for us. We spend our days shooting for a little burst of approval or some small career victory.

“But there’s a joyful way of being that’s not just a little bit better than the way we are currently living; it’s a quantum leap better. It’s as if we’re all competing to get a little closer to a sunlamp. If we get up and live a different way, we can bathe in real sunshine.”

second mountainBrooks says there are two metaphorical mountains for us to climb.

Most of us are in a mad scramble up the first mountain. We’re decked out in “I’m free to be me” athleisure as we pursue happiness and self-love, build our personal brands, manage our reputations, curate our best lives on social media, keep score and take stock of how we measure up.

“The goals on the first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses – to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited to the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness,” says Brooks. “It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.”

Maybe we’ll reach the peak and love the view. But we may suffer existential dread as we wonder if there’s more than this. Or we could get tossed off the mountain after losing our job, good health or reputation.

Fortunately, there’s a second mountain for us to climb. On this mountain, we trade independence for interdependence and swap happiness for joy. Instead of living our best life, we’re dedicated to making life better for others. Choosing one or more commitments to a vocation, spouse or family, a philosophy or faith, and a community is our price of admission to the second mountain.

“A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a reward,” says Brooks. “Adult life is about making promises to others, being faithful to those promises. The beautiful life is found in the mutual giving of unconditional gifts. When I meet people leading lives of deep commitment, this fact hits me: joy is real.”

On the first mountain, we have careers. On the second mountain, we dedicate ourselves to vocations.

A career is based on what we’re good at while a vocation is built on what we’ve been obsessively interested in for many years.

“In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest,” says Brooks. “Interest multiples talent and is in most cases more important than talent.  The crucial terrain to be explored in any vocation search is the terrain of your heart and soul, your long-term motivation. Knowledge is plentiful; motivation is scarce.”

Still searching for your vocation? Say yes to everything. “Say yes to every opportunity that comes along, because you never know what will lead to what,” says Brooks. “Have a bias toward action. Think of yourself as a fish that is hoping to get caught. Go out there among the fishhooks.”

If you’ve been blown off the first mountain or find yourself underwhelmed by the view, Brooks will help you find the fishhooks and the courage to climb your second mountain.

This review first ran in the Feb. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. I serve as communications manager for McMaster’s Faculty of Science, live in Hamilton and have reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.