Asking for Help at Work
Getting Help Without Looking Weak
If you're struggling with your workload or with a particular task, it can be difficult to ask your boss or your colleagues for help.
If you admit that you can't handle everything, will they think that you're not capable? After all, you should be able to do your work on your own, right?
You might also be worried about your work "competitors" – other people who may want the same promotions or projects that you do. If they find out that you're struggling, will they take advantage of your weakness? You certainly don't want to look vulnerable in front of them.
Asking for help makes many of us uncomfortable – especially if we're in a management role. But it's critical to learn how to ask for help when you need it, especially when risks are involved. After all, would you rather get the help you need, or jeopardize your prospects by missing key deadlines, or producing poor-quality work?
What's more, many bosses operate a "no surprises" rule – they'd much rather be alerted to a problem early on than be surprised by (and perhaps embarrassed by) a missed deadline. Respect this.
In this article, we'll look at how and when to ask for help at work, and how to do it right.
Do a Self-Assessment
People's workloads rise and fall as conditions, and situations, change. If you feel overwhelmed by your current workload, or if you're not sure how to do a task or project that you've been assigned, don't ask for help immediately – do a self-assessment first. Follow these steps:
- Review your work. Look at the work that you need to do. Can you delegate any tasks to a team member or assistant? Are you using To-Do Lists or Action Programs to manage your work, and are you prioritizing effectively?
- Evaluate your schedule. Are you overwhelmed because you need to work on your time management skills? If so, use an activity log to see how you spend your time each day. This may help you eliminate time-wasting activities, so that you can focus more time on your "real" important work.
- Try to solve the problem creatively. Ask yourself if you can change or automate the way that you work, so that you work more effectively.
- Assess your productivity. Just because you're busy, this doesn't mean that you're being productive and focusing on the work that matters. Our quiz How Productive Are You? will help you to understand how productive you really are, and where you can improve.
- Make more time. It's an unfortunate truth that successful people tend to work longer hours than less successful people. If your co-workers are in the office longer than you are, they're unlikely to be sympathetic to requests for help. (Obviously, don't take working long hours too far!)
- Manage your stress. Some jobs are undoable – the workload far exceeds the finite resources available. If this is true for you, then getting ahead on a few tasks or projects is unlikely to make a difference in the long term. If you're in this situation, then learning stress management techniques might be a better strategy. Doing a job analysis may also help, or it may be better just to move on.
It's important to act quickly if you're struggling with work, so do this self-assessment as soon as you feel overwhelmed.
Know Who to Ask
If you've reviewed your work habits and determined that you really do need help, you must now decide whom you should ask for assistance.
If you're in a management position, you could ask your boss or colleagues, or even delegate more work to people on your team. But as a manager, you may find it difficult to ask for help. You may not want your team to see you as weak, or you may feel that because you're in a senior position, you should be able to handle everything yourself.
However, these thoughts not only waste valuable time, but also waste energy that you could devote to more important tasks. Most of us need help at some point, no matter what position we hold in an organization.
If you're not in a management role, you still might be uncomfortable asking for help, especially if you must ask your boss. But asking for help is often a sign of good judgment: it shows that you care about doing your work correctly, so that your team or organization succeed.
Start by identifying the exact area in which you need help. Is a specific task causing you problems? Are you missing a key skill? Or do you simply have too much to do?
Next, look at who is in the best situation to help you. Consider your allies first. Then consider those who have the resources, knowledge or skills that you need.
Remember, asking for help shows humility. This is often seen as an admirable trait in anyone, regardless of their position.
Ask the Right Way
There are right ways and wrong ways to ask for help.
Asking for help the right way can make you look as if you're in control, and can help you seem focused and dignified. Asking the wrong way could make others think that you don't have control of your emotions, or that you're unable to handle the stress of your job.
Here's how to ask for help the right way:
- Realize that people may be happy to help you. People are often flattered that you've asked them for their expertise. So, don't be nervous.
- Practice how you'll ask. Remember that your body language sometimes says far more than your words. Also, consider role-playing to help you to prepare.
- Control your words and emotions. Ask for help only when you're fully in control of your words and emotions. If you become anxious or emotional, it may not only damage your reputation, but make the other person reluctant to help.
- Be "grown up" in the way you ask. Be calm and polite. Don't try to intimidate other people, and don't try to manipulate them into helping.
- Explain what steps you've already taken. This shows that you've done what you sensibly can to resolve the situation yourself.
Determine possible solutions on your own. Try to think of possible solutions, especially if you're asking your boss or a senior colleague for help.
For instance, don't say, "I can't handle my workload." Instead, say, "I think that handing over Project X to Karen will help me to put my full focus on Projects Y and Z."
Developing potential solutions shows that you've tried to solve the problem yourself. It's also more flattering, because the other person feels that you're asking for advice, not for help doing your job.
Be specific about what you need. Don't make a vague request such as, "I need help with this report."
Instead, explain precisely what you need: "I'm having difficulty creating an Excel template to generate graphs. Can you please help me with that?"
- Show appreciation. Always say thank you after someone has helped you. If you're in a leadership role and a team member gave you much-needed assistance, you might want to offer some type of reward, or at least thank the person in front of the team.
- Offer your help in return. Whenever people help you, make sure they know that you're happy to consider returning the favor if they ever need it.
Most of us will need to ask for help at some point in our careers. This may be difficult, especially for managers, but it shows that we have humility and good judgment.
Do a self-assessment first. Learn how to get organized or manage your time better, if this is the source of the problem.
If you do need to ask for help, do so when you're fully in control of your actions and emotions. Be aware of your body language, and develop possible solutions that show that you've tried to solve the problem yourself.
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