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.

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999. By day, I serve as communications manager for the Faculty of Science at McMaster University. I've worked in public relations since 1993 and call Hamilton, Ontario home.

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