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Help, I Need Somebody (at the Office)

There’s power in asking for help in a world full of people longing for connection.

More than 15 years ago, I attended a workshop facilitated by Daniel Pink. He was explaining how businesspeople can thrive as free agents, and he stressed the importance of getting comfortable with asking for help. At the time, I was a free agent myself, and although I was already used to seeking help occasionally, Pink’s advice gave me the confidence to make it a more regular part of doing business. And he was right: Asking for and receiving help is critical to success. Over the past 18 years, I’ve been able to road-test my coaching model, receive referrals, secure endorsements, apply the wisdom of others to enhance my work and refine my skills, and secure a series of writing gigs, including an unsolicited contract to write a book — all thanks in large part to the generosity of others.

Many of us shy away from asking for help, both in and out of the office. Have you ever had to clean up after a dinner party, for example? Most of us, no matter how tired we are after cooking and hosting a shindig for friends, will decline their help when they offer to stick around and aid in the cleanup.

It seems crazy, but it’s not. In the U.S., as in many societies, independence and self-sufficiency is considered a virtue. Asking for help can feel like a sign of weakness and an imposition. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, “people worry that if they ask for help, they'll appear incompetent, vulnerable, dependent, or helpless.” But research by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks and her colleagues actually shows the opposite — “individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent than those who do not,” they write, in part because offering help gives the advice-giver a shot of confidence.

“Individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent than those who do not.”

We also fear rejection, but that risk too is blown out of proportion. On average, people underestimate the willingness of others to help by a factor of two; most of us are inclined to help others. According to Grant, 80 percent of people are givers or matchers, with givers willing to give with no expectation of reciprocity, and matchers willing to return favors or give with an expectation of receiving in the future. When you reach out, make it easy for others to say yes by keeping the initial request small — for example, by asking for advice or an introduction. And if you do hear a no, don’t take it personally. The person isn’t rejecting you — just your request. Take a moment to regroup. And, if you have the courage to ask again (being sure to modify your request), you’ll often find that persistence will pay off and result in a yes the second time around.

Our need for self-sufficiency is so ingrained that it often doesn’t occur to us that we need help, even when we’re faced with new challenges. Consider Barbara (not her real name), who was looking for a new job after changes in leadership at her current employer limited her ability to advance. She had worked for the same company for 15 years, and garnered a stellar reputation in her field. But when it came time to look for a new position, her instinct was to fly solo, investing (and wasting) hours upon hours pursuing online job postings. Thoroughly discouraged, she realized that it made no sense to rely on help from online strangers rather than from her legions of real-life fans. They were just waiting for her to reach out — so she did.

The benefits of asking and giving flow back and forth, but they also flow outward: Giving makes us feel happy, it’s good for our health, and it promotes social connection and gratitude. Kindness is contagious. So, if you’re one who resists leaning on others, it’s time to reframe your thinking. Rather than feeling like you are imposing on others, you are, in a real sense, helping others feel better about themselves.

And helping is not just about doing good — it’s also about preventing bad. Failure to ask for help can harm relationships. I still cringe when I think about the time when one of my best and brightest employees resigned. I was speechless — I had mentored him for two years, but he did not trust me enough to bring me into his confidence and solicit my help. While the act of informing your current supervisor about your desire to move on may seem folly, it’s the right decision if you are a strong performer. Have exploratory conversations well in advance so that your supervisor/sponsor can offer internal options that address your underlying motivations for leaving. If you are a star, you company will try to keep you. And if it can’t, and you gave it every opportunity to try, you will be able to depart with relationships intact.

Being willing to ask for help is a paradoxical combination of humility and confidence, and it’s only possible once we embrace the idea that we aren’t unique in our inadequacies; everyone needs help and nobody can do it alone. As the Beatles song “Help” goes:

When I was younger, so much younger than today,

I never needed anybody's help in any way.

But now these days are gone, I'm not so self-assured,

Now I find I've changed my mind, I've opened up the doors…

Won’t you please, please help me?

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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