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This is why workplaces make asking for help so difficult

The onus of asking for help is often unfairly placed on the employee.

[Source photo: [Photo: Jonathan Kirn/Getty Images]]

Change happens quickly, and with it come both unpredictable and anticipated challenges. Having the ability to remain flexible, adapt, and respond to the speed of change is crucial to achieving success not only in the workplace but also in life and relationships.

Many of us have experience operating in challenging environments where there’s immense pressure to perform and achieve, regardless of how things may be shifting or changing around us. Executives have only one to two quarters to make a documented difference, companies recycle teams in an effort to be more agile, and the slightest diversion from a laid-out plan can lead to fundamental changes in direction for an entire firm.

What does all of this mean? Now, more than ever, we need help. There’s no way around it, and no one is exempt. The irony is that nobody likes asking for it. It’s also true that asking for help comes in may forms: It could be as critical as needing mental health support, or as seemingly insignificant as needing to locate the nearest restroom in a sudden moment of panic when the caffeine hits.

Our fear of seeking help is, at its root, irrational. This fear is directly associated with being perceived as incompetent, a failure, or socially rejected. In direct contradiction of this fear is the fact that data indicates those who have mastered asking for help with finesse happen to be the most successful individuals. So let’s not forget that this is a skill, and like any other, it requires practice. However, it is rarely ever on a person’s radar as an area of opportunity to improve.

The pace at which things are changing around us is likely also being felt by colleagues, peers, and leaders, so—fairly or unfairly—the responsibility for asking for help lands squarely on our own shoulders. We can’t expect others to notice our struggles and make the effort to reach out on our behalf.

The good news is, once we overcome our initial hesitation, most of the time we’ll find that others are happy to help. There’s an internal reward system that’s activated when someone seeks out our assistance. As a result, relationships strengthen, skills are improved, and, generally speaking, the organization as a whole benefits when we ask for what we need.

Whether evaluating the inner workings of a large enterprise or family dynamics, the approach remains the same. Here are a few crucial action items to facilitate the comfort and security needed to fuel individuals’ confidence to ask for help.

First and foremost, cultivating a psychologically safe environment is a necessity to setting up your group for success. This involves the mental calculation that occurs as we determine the potential risks of asking for help, asking a question, or reporting an issue.

Fundamentally, success comes down to open communication among a team, and each individual’s ability to exercise empathy and sensitivity for one another. Allowing everyone to ask questions, share feelings, and embrace vulnerability is what separates successful teams from the rest.

In his book Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg outlines how team leaders at Google were given a checklist to follow to model psychological safety. Some of these items included offering summaries to demonstrate active listening, avoiding any temptation to interrupt, owning opportunities for learning, encouraging team members to express frustrations, and providing equal opportunities for all to speak up and communicate in meetings. The more psychologically safe we feel, the more we are able to accept it as a norm and work to amplify and protect that energy.

Once this environment is established and nurtured, we need to look inward and think about the intuitive ways we traditionally ask for help, and in doing so potentially acknowledge that these methods may be unproductive. Given that helping others is a natural inclination and desire for so many, we have to cater to this innate response in our approach.

How can we present it as a collaboration as opposed to an obligation? To start, as someone asking for help, avoid apologizing for your request and avoid emphasizing any reciprocity, as people don’t like to feel indebted or part of a transaction. Don’t do yourself the disservice of minimizing your need or request, as that could imply the person’s input is trivial or even unnecessary. The goal is to give people autonomy over their responses by framing it as an opportunity for them.

Remind yourself and your teammates that you’re part of a group that is aiming to work together. Use strategic language and vocabulary to connect on a common goal or even reference a common enemy. These people are (or should be) on your side, and small efforts in approach can help facilitate that bond. People want to feel valued, and seeking support, help, or advice is a perfect way to reinforce that part of their identity. Asking for help is a lot easier when you do the work in advance to build and foster the relationship.

This is simply an exercise and opportunity for you to begin asking questions. This practice and carrying a level of curiosity has proven to be a game-changer in corporate culture. While it’s never easy, there’s a lot to be said for the person who has the courage to seek help, empowering others to do the same. We each possess the power and ability to do the work, so let’s bask in all the benefits and success those efforts will bring.


Jim Frawley is a coach and consultant, as well as the founder and CEO of Bellwether, a talent coaching firm. He specializes in helping corporations maximize their efficiency and enhance their growth. More

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