How to Get Better at Asking for Help at Work

How to Get Better at Asking for Help at Work

The hesitance to ask for help can keep us bogged down in more work than is necessary and is a key contributor to feeling constantly overwhelmed at work. In this piece, the author outlines six strategies for unlearning old, unproductive patterns that prevent you from reaching out for assistance when you really need it.

Most people have a never-ending mountain of work to get through and would likely feel immense relief if their workload were in some way lessened. Yet so many of us don’t actually ask for help, which is one way we can make our workload more manageable and feel less overwhelmed. After all, we are only human. We can’t do everything ourselves or be as successful as we aspire to be if we don’t ask for the support we need.

It’s often not for lack of knowing who could actually help us or when or how to ask them for help that keeps us from requesting much-needed support, but our own reluctance to make the ask of others for assistance when we have too much on our plate. This is especially true for those of us who are “helpers” — ready to assist a colleague at a moment’s notice, but rarely, if ever, ask for help ourselves.

Why People Refrain from Asking for Help

This hesitance to ask for help can keep us bogged down in more work than is necessary and is a key contributor to feeling constantly overwhelmed at work.

In a global study I recently conducted on overwhelm at work that surveyed 730 full-time working professionals, I examined various personal factors (not the volume of work itself), and lack of help-seeking was tied as one of the top two predictors of feeling overwhelmed at work, with the second highest correlation to overwhelm. Those who don’t ask for help scored 23% higher on overwhelm.

In my work as an executive coach, I’ve seen people refrain from asking for help typically due to limiting beliefs or assumptions around what they fear might happen if they asked a colleague for help. Some of the more common limiting beliefs include:

  • I’ll look weak or incompetent
  • I’ll be imposing on others or seem needy
  • Others will lose confidence in me
  • I can’t count on anyone, so I need to do everything myself

Part of feeling overwhelmed is feeling alone in our challenges, which is more likely to happen when we don’t ask for help. Deborah Grayson Riegel, executive coach and coauthor of Go to Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help shared that when we hold the above limiting beliefs, “We are likely to feel reluctant, embarrassed, alone, ashamed, etc. As a result of those feelings, the behaviors that show up look like resistance, withdrawing, isolating, overperforming, etc.”

When these limiting assumptions cause you to go it alone instead of reaching out for help when you’re drowning in work, it requires dismantling or “unlearning” these old beliefs that no longer serve you. This is the hard part of change — and frankly, why I have a job as a coach.

While it represents a tougher challenge than the technical aspects of how to ask for helptackling how we think about asking for help is going to result in more lasting change as our perspective shifts and expands.

How to Shift Your Thinking About Asking for Help

To break free from your reluctance to asking for help, try the following strategies:

1. Identify the limiting beliefs and assumptions that are holding you back.

Often these beliefs are not completely conscious, as many people tend to operate on autopilot. You may have a vague notion of your resistance but not be able to clearly articulate the exact source of it. Ask yourself “What am I afraid will happen if I ask for help?” Once you’ve answered this question, then probe deeper by asking, And what would be the dire consequence of that?”

For Anita, a private equity executive, her fear was that if she asked for help, she’d tarnish her rock-star image of being able to handle everything on her own and people would then see her as losing her mojo.

These fears are emotional — not rational — and can be hard to admit, even to ourselves. They are also what make us human. You may have to sit with these two questions a bit and reflect to let the answers rise to the surface. Journaling or talking with a trusted friend, colleague or trained coach or therapist can help you to excavate the primary internal barrier(s) holding you back.

2. Reflect on the source of your limiting beliefs.

Thinking about where or how your reluctance to ask for help initially developed can provide useful insights.

Sam, a digital marketing consultant, had always prided himself on his self-reliance, which he developed early in life. Ironically, this quality had helped to make him successful in his career, but later became an obstacle that kept him drowning in work. He held the limiting belief that “I have to do everything myself, because no one will be there to help me,” because as a child, that was sadly true. The adults in his life were absent or neglectful. Yet, today, as an adult in a different context at work, this assumption no longer applies to the people who work with him. Seeing the origin of your limiting belief can help you look at it more objectively. While it may still feel true, it is in fact, no longer true.

Riegel also shared that “starting at about seven years old, we start to associate asking for help with reputational costs. We’ve been conditioned to think ‘They’re going to think I’m dumb/bad/lazy/weak if I admit I need help’ for decades.” Perhaps this is why those aged over 55, as revealed in my overwhelm at work study, are most likely to ask for help — we tend to care less about what others think after we’ve reached mid-life. This age group, incidentally, also felt less overwhelmed at work than other age groups.

Riegel continued that some may also “have experienced help that wasn’t actually helpful, like people offering to help and then taking over completely and doing it themselves, or people offering to help us, and then making it clear that they think we shouldn’t need the help,” or offering the wrong type of help, leaving us even more frustrated. Having any of these experiences (or several of them) may cause you to generalize and believe that “help isn’t that helpful” or that “if one person isn’t helpful, no one will be helpful.” Stepping back to reflect on this can allow you to better see the limits of your thinking.

3. Try small experiments.

Make small behavior changes to see the impact on how you feel or the response you get from others. It can be something simple like “Can I brainstorm with you for five minutes?” or “Would you be willing to take a look at my client proposal and share your feedback with me?”

You might also observe how you view others who ask you for help. Do you think they are less smart or competent? Or do you view their request for help as something that’s totally normal and something you’d be happy to do (independent of whether you can actually help them)?

4. Share with others.

Let others know that you are working to get better at asking for help. Sharing this with colleagues can not only enlist their support but make it easier for you to make the ask when the time comes — it can also prime them to be more receptive to these requests, providing positive reinforcement for your help-seeking behavior and further reducing your reluctance to reach out for support.

5. Create opportunities for practice, structure, and accountability.

Set tangible, specific goals or structures for yourself that provide opportunities to practice and have a system for accountability. You could create a daily or weekly goal around how many requests for help you will make. To create accountability, you might work with a coach or report back to a friend or colleague. If you are good at holding yourself accountable, you can create a customized tracker.

An exercise I would often give to clients (particularly those looking for a new job, who really needed to ask others for help) was to get 20 no’s — in the two decades that I’ve been coaching, no one has yet to collect them. You might also track your daily stress level on a scale of one to 10. If your score is at an eight or higher, determine what is making your score that high, and then ask for help with whatever will bring your stress level down to at least a six or seven, if not lower. Practicing asking for help in your personal life can also help build this muscle.

6. Step back and reflect regularly.

Reflection is where a lot of the learning happens. Find a regular time and cadence (e.g., daily/weekly) to ask yourself some good reflective questions like:

  • Where was I able to ask for help?
  • What made it easier to do this?
  • Where didn’t I ask for help when I really could have used it?
  • What held me back?
  • Where do I have the opportunity to ask for help next?
  • What might I try differently next time?

This reflection does not have to take a lot of time (this can be as short as five to 10 minutes), but it’s important that it happens, whether you are simply contemplating these questions, journaling your answers to them, or talking about them with someone else, or all of the above.

Overcoming your reluctance to asking for help requires ongoing practice, reflection, and integration of new mindsets. By unlearning old, unproductive patterns that prevent you from reaching out for assistance when you really need it and relearning new ways of operating, you will feel more supported and less overwhelmed at work.

Read More