The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work

Asking for help at work should be easy. You go to your coworker and say, “Hey, can I get your help on something?” She happily agrees because, as her motivational poster states, when we work together we succeed together. This model teamwork spreads throughout the company’s culture to manifest an environment of jolly cooperation.

ask for help

But it’s not so simple, is it? Asking for help involves uncertainty and emotional risk. Your request could be rejected. Your supervisor may perceive you as incompetent. And admitting one’s failures and shortcomings, even as subtext, stings.

But learning how to ask for help at work is necessary, not only for you to succeed but for you to become a productive member of your team.

Get over your reluctance

Chances are, your coworkers are more willing to offer help than you think. One study review found that people will aid strangers at a rate 48 percent higher than expected. The review also suggests that people underestimate the effort helpers are willing to put in.

And that data looks at people assisting strangers. As Francis Flynn pointed out in Stanford Business magazine, people are far more welling to engage in “prosocial behavior” if they perceive a sense of group membership. This means office mates are predisposed to helping each other—although an overly competitive workplaces can be the exception.

Lend a helping hand

Be willing to assist others. Not only does it build friendships and goodwill, but when the time comes for you to request help, you’ll find coworkers eager to assist. That’s because you’ll demonstrate yourself to be someone who cares for others and doesn’t see their success as competition to your own.

Helping others also proves your competence in the eyes of your coworkers and your own. You know you can do the job; now it’s your turn for a little help.

Troubleshoot solutions first

Don’t ask as soon as things go askew. Instead, try to troubleshoot some solutions first. You may stumble upon an answer or learn a better way to perform the task. Troubleshooting also saves your would-be helper time since he won’t have to retry solutions you’ve already attempted. And it really is okay to fail when you learn.

The exception is when a mistake could result in a major setback for either you or your team. If experimenting could, say, wipe vast amounts of data, then it is worth seeking assistance first and figuring out a solution together.

Don’t delay

Some people wait too long before asking for help, assuming their supervisor will be impressed by their tenacity. But the opposite is usually true, and the supervisor wishes the request had come sooner. When the problem becomes an impediment to productivity, it’s a good habit to ask for help right away.

This and the previous advice may seem at odds. How do you know when a problem goes from being something to troubleshoot to an impenetrable brick wall? It’s a tricky question, and the answer depends a lot on the nature of the problem, your experience, and the consequences of delay.

Again, if a major setback looms, it is best to ask right away. If workable solutions could take a long time, it is worth at least asking for advice first. But if you can reasonably troubleshoot a solution with negligible risk or time lost, then go ahead and give it a try.

Make a specific ask

Don’t ask for a favor or to borrow your would-be helper’s time. Identify the specific roadblock in your project and ask for them to address it. This way, she’ll know what the favor will entail and can make an estimate about the time and energy she’ll need to invest.

It is better that she turns you down because she can’t make that investment, than to help you and grow resentful because the request balloons beyond her expectations.

Stay engaged

Don’t let your helper do all the work. Stay engaged, do what you can, and take this opportunity to learn. Active engagement will show you aren’t being lazy and getting someone else to do your work. And your helper will appreciate your willingness to learn.

The art of the ask

Asking for help can seem daunting initially. We tend to assume it shows the worst in us, but when done properly, it demonstrates the opposite. It shows we are willing to learn and can build stronger bonds with coworkers, especially if we are willing to help them in turn.

One final bit of advice: Be sure to thank your helper for his assistance and let your supervisor know what he did. It’s good form and will show you appreciate the help.

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