Why is it that we often waste valuable time or go up a blind alley because we hold back from asking for help?

In the early stages of my career, I was under the misapprehension that self-starters don’t ask for help. Added in to the mix was concern about showing any weakness in a macho environment. I then noticed that the self-assured were effective in ‘cutting to the chase’. For them, help wasn’t a dirty, four-lettered word that should be used sparingly in the workplace. This was a valuable lesson.

Without a shadow of doubt, the most fulfilled people I know recognise that reciprocity is the base line. Indeed the biggest rewards tend to accrue to those with a free-flowing ‘pay forward’ attitude. The movie Working Girl may have immortalised the line ‘It’s a two-way street, Tess’, but don’t forget to open the door first for others, too. This is ‘reputational gold’.

Five key questions for letting help in on the act

  1. Whether to ask for help

    Reflect on whether the task or question at hand may be deemed to be within your area of competency or deemed to be a stretch. If it is a simple question regarding process,then waste no time, and go ahead and ask the question. If not, then are you satisfied that you have tried to learn via observation, can you demonstrate that you have already made an effort, and do you have any potential solutions?
    We have all been in situations when we think that we may be expected to know the answer already. If in doubt whether to seek help or to attempt to muddle through and defer the question, then consider how it will reflect on you if you ask the question further down the road. Will it be even likelier that you will feel (whether true or not) that you should know the answer? What impact will going it alone have on your productivity and scramble up the learning curve?

  2. When to ask for help

Timing is a matter of judgement. As far as possible put yourself in the shoes of your advisor and consider optimal timing, or, at the very least, avoid an interruption at a crunch point. In our busyness or stress, it is all too easy to overlook this obvious point. An easy first step is to consider when you, yourself, are most receptive.

  1. Who to ask for help

The three elements that feed into this are the following:

  • Competence — this is self-explanatory, but you won’t
be the first person to have asked for help based on approachability rather than relevant expertise or knowledge. Be thoughtful about who you see modelling best practice.
  • Approachability — this is not a set state for anybody 
but will vary depending on timing. Within an office context, approachability can sometimes be mistakenly assumed to be inversely correlated with seniority. How realistic, though, is it to expect a peer, also in the running for a high stakes promotion, to bend over backwards to help? It may make more sense to approach a peer in another territory, division or company.
  • Generativity — people often fail to tap into the vast accumulated knowledge of senior people. Don’t lose sight of the fact that humans are essentially co-operative and like to pass on their wisdom. There is a treasure trove of experience to be tapped into once you have understood the power of generativity.
  1. What to ask

Preparation is essential to achieving the optimal outcome— valuable insights and others’ vested interest in your success. Deep forethought is needed for what outcome/information you desire. Be ready to answer the reasonable question ‘How can I help/what do you want time to discuss? It’s useful to imagine what the best possible outcome from your encounter might be.

  1. How to respond

Let’s assume you have targeted depth of experience and have a clear sense of your objectives. You have set yourself up for the best possible outcome and are seeking a broader and higher level perspective. Perhaps the cherry on the cake is that you have also been able to establish something in common such as an interest, sports affiliation, or even inspired a potential maternal/paternal-like interest. The next crucial step is to be in ‘receive mode’. There is a balance and this may indeed be the ideal opportunity to give a brief ‘elevator speech’ describing who you are or what you do in one or two sentences. However, be sure to be concise and to remember that the pearls of wisdom can only be received by you if you’re attentive. If you have dominated the conversation, you have squandered an opportunity and limited your chance to learn.

The focus so far has been on seeking help, but be generous in helping others.  Undoubtedly, it is the hallmark of the most fulfilled. As Mohammed Ali said, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth’.


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