Asking for Help
Getting the Support You Need Without Looking Weak
We all need help at work from time to time, but it's not always easy to say so. No matter how far you've come in your career, you may worry about seeming incompetent, weak, or simply annoying if you ask for assistance.
But seeking support isn't a weakness. In fact, it's often the difference between failure and success. It can prevent costly or embarrassing mistakes, and mark you out as someone with self-awareness, confidence, and an understanding of shared goals.
What's more, drawing on other people's skills can benefit the helper, and your wider organization, too.
In this article, we'll look at how and when to ask for help at work, and how to do it right.
When Is It OK to Ask for Help?
In a busy workplace you can't ask for help all the time. And it may not look good if you have to do so over and over again. (See the Assessing Your Need for Help section, below).
So, how do you know if you should seek support or fend for yourself? Start by asking yourself the following three questions:
1. Is It My Responsibility?
First, consider whether the task in question is really your responsibility, and whether you have the skills and knowledge you need to complete it. It's better to speak up early than to risk doing the job badly or making mistakes that will need more time and resources to fix later.
If the task clearly belongs to someone else, tell them so, explaining your thinking clearly and politely. But if your responsibilities are unclear, or you feel ill-equipped to do the task alone, ask your line manager for advice.
2. What's the Timescale?
Deadlines often dictate how much help you need, so look carefully at the timescales involved.
If you need to do a job quickly, but you're not sure how to do it, you'll likely need to ask for help straight away – in fact, it may be reckless not to. But if you have more time, and your other commitments allow it, you may be able to work it out for yourself. Alternatively, there may be time to solve a problem collaboratively in your next team meeting.
If there's plenty of time available, you could look into the options for training, or for working alongside another team member so that you can learn "on the job."
3. What Are My Options?
It's a good idea to pause and consider your options before you get other people involved. Many jobs are easier to accomplish than they first appear, and just a little thought may reveal a way to complete a task, or to get the information that you need to do it.
You may also want to explore more creative solutions, such as changing the way you work, or automating certain aspects of your job to improve efficiency. This shows initiative, and it may well save time or solve problems in the long run.
Take care not to overlook easy solutions, or to complicate a situation by seeking help too early. But don't wait so long that issues become difficult to fix – no one will thank you for keeping quiet until it's too late!
By considering the three questions above – and other factors specific to your situation – it may be that you can carry on without help.
Equally, your answers may reveal that you can (and should) ask for help. So, let's look at how to do that the right way.
Who Should I Ask for Help?
When you're near the start of your career, or new to your role, your line manager, mentor, or a co-worker will likely be your first point of contact.
If you're in a more senior role, it may seem more complicated – especially if you're usually the one with all the answers! But, in fact, you have plenty of options, too.
You could arrange to talk to someone above you in the organization, or to collaborate with another senior manager. This is a great way to demonstrate your awareness of priorities, your strategic approach, and your commitment to the business.
There might also be a chance to boost the experience of someone lower down the ladder. If they're equipped to do what you're asking, and have the capacity to help, this could be a valuable opportunity for both of you. (For more information on this, see our article Successful Delegation.)
Either way, it's usually best to ask for help from other members of your immediate team or professional network – it makes sense to consider your allies first. Then think about other people, based on what you know about their access to the resources, knowledge or skills that you need.
How to Ask for Help Without Looking Weak – or Being Annoying!
When you've chosen the best person to ask, be sure to pick the right moment to approach them. Avoid times when they're obviously rushed or busy. (That might be an opportunity to ask if you can help them, first!)
Then, consider the following tips and guidelines:
Use the right communication channel. Will you ask the person face-to-face, on the telephone, or in an email or instant message? This will depend on many factors, including your relationship with the person, the nature of the request, and your physical location. An initial, short message is often a good place to start. You can outline the issue, check the person's availability, and assess their willingness to help.
Whichever method you choose, think carefully about how you phrase and structure your request. They'll likely respond much better to a clear, well-defined request, than to a general plea for help.
Be confident. People are often more than happy to share their knowledge, and will likely be flattered that you've asked. But if you seem nervous when you ask someone for help, they may not understand the urgency and could be more reluctant to get involved, or even suspicious of your motives.
Consider any questions you're likely to receive or how you'll respond to pushback. And remember that your body language sometimes says far more than your words!
- Show your appreciation. When someone agrees to help you, always say thank you – and, if it's appropriate, consider ways you can either celebrate or reward their help.
If you get it right, asking someone for help can be as valuable for them as it is for you. It might be a chance to showcase their skills, or to increase their confidence by teaching someone else.
What's more, it can foster a culture of cooperation where people learn from one another and work together to find solutions. And knowing that your co-workers have "got your back" increases the sense of psychological safety in your organization.
Members of the Mind Tools Club can listen to our Book Insight podcast, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, which discusses the benefits of a helping culture.
Assessing Your Need for Help
As we've seen, asking for help is a legitimate and positive response when you're temporarily overstretched, or when you need assistance with a particular issue.
But, if you need to ask for help with your work all the time, it may point to a more serious underlying problem. Maybe you need additional training, or you simply have too many responsibilities.
If this applies to you, don't ignore it. Speak to your line manager as soon as possible, so that they can distribute tasks more evenly or assess your training needs.
Too much pressure can negatively impact your performance, and it may lead to stress or burnout. Remember that you don't always have to say "yes" to every task, and that staying in control of stress allows you to maintain an accurate picture of how you're coping – and to seek help if you need it.
Being organized is also important. It will enable you to keep your responsibilities in perspective, and to know what you can and can't manage alone.
If you're known to be an efficient and motivated member of the team, colleagues will know that your requests for help are justified, and that you've already tried your best to solve any issues on your own.
The more confidence other people have in you, the quicker they'll be to provide help when you really need it!
Everyone needs to ask for help sometimes. This is not a weakness – in fact, it's a vital part of being successful at your job, developing in your role, and dealing with problems before they get out of hand.
Before you ask for help, consider the limits of your responsibility, any quick solutions at your disposal, how much time you have, and whether there's training available that will allow you to help yourself.
When you do ask for help, be clear, confident and prepared. Choose the right method of communication and be sure to show your appreciation. This will get you the help you need now, and contribute to a culture of cooperation in your organization.
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