The question invites a lot of semi-baseless pop-psychology theorizing, but it’s one worth asking nonetheless: Why is it so hard to ask for help — especially in the office?
My hunch is that, in part, asking for help feels so difficult because of our American bootstraps culture, which perpetuates the nasty myth that the best way to get anything done is to do it by yourself, with as little dependence on others as possible.
According to Erin Wortham, people engagement manager at personal development company Insights Learning & Development, there are also a few more personal challenges that make asking for help feel so darn hard to do. A lot of it has to do with our past experiences and the way that the act of asking for help makes us feel.
3 Reasons Why Asking for Help in the Workplace Is Difficult
“The first thing that comes to mind is that some of us haven’t had good examples in our past experiences where asking for help has panned out in a positive way,” Wortham says.
Who among us hasn’t asked a colleague or manager for help, only to walk away feeling like no one listened or even made an honest attempt to come to our aid?
“We maybe feel like, when we ask for help, we go away from the situation feeling as if we’re unheard or unsuccessful,” Wortham says.
The more times this happens, the less likely someone will be to ask for help in the future. It’s that old chestnut about the definition of insanity: If something hasn’t worked in the past, believing it may work in the future seems naive at best.
Wortham also notes that asking for help can make us feel vulnerable, and that’s not a comfortable position to be in. It’s especially upsetting to feel vulnerable in the workplace. We’d rather have our colleagues and supervisors looking on in awe at our wonderful work — not coming to our rescue when we get stuck.
“When you’re in the workplace, and you want to make good on your deliverables, [you might] shy away from asking for help because doing so would make you feel inadequate,” Wortham says.
Finally, theres a need for control over our work that often makes us hesitate to seek help.
“You might be thinking, ‘I’m the only one who can do this because my name is on this project,’” Wortham says.
This need for control is often related to a belief — which isn’t always true — that “I can do it faster myself,” Wortham explains.
“Sometimes, I myself am so wrapped up in what I am doing that, if I ask for help from someone else, it feels like it would take more time for me to stop and explain and get the buy-in,” Wortham says.
Even if you can complete the work faster on your own, you can’t always do it best on your own. Inviting someone else in to help out may slow down the project, but it may also dramatically increase the quality of the final result.
Creating a Collaborative Workplace Environment
Despite our personal and culture hang-ups about asking for help, many argue that collaboration is highly beneficial to business.
“No one is as smart as everyone,” says Wortham.
The first step toward building a more collaborative environment — one where employees feel free to ask for help — is to make asking for help a routine part of everyone’s workday.
“Something that’s really had an impact for me at Insights is my manager checks in with me often and asks really simple questions, like ‘What are you up to, how are you feeling, and how can I help?’” Wortham explains. “When you see peers, colleagues, and managers at all levels asking for help, it feels like less of a big step to ask for help yourself.”
Leaders and managers can encourage people to ask for help early, often, and at all levels by being the role models who normalize the act of asking for help.
It’s also important for everyone to know how to ask for help. Sometimes, the thing that holds us back most is just the act of saying, “I need help.”
“Some of us shy away from using those words because of our past experiences or how they make us feel vulnerable,” Wortham says. “It’s important to be able to articulate your needs and frame them in a way that makes you comfortable.”
Wortham says we should “think about inviting [our] colleagues to contribute what [we] need in a different ways.”
So, instead of saying, “Hey, can you help me out with this?” we can find new ways to solicit aid, like:
- “Hey, I’d really love your input on this.”
- “Here are some things I was thinking about — can I run them by you?”
- “Have you ever come across a situation like this before? What did you do?”
Just by altering the actual words we use, we can make ourselves feel that much more comfortable with the idea of asking for help at work. When asking for help becomes a simple part of the daily routine, we and the companies we work for benefit tremendously.