Career Advice

How to Ask for Help When You Actually Really Need It

Working late in a small office in Barcelona

In today’s work world, being a self-starter who can handle anything with minimal intervention from your superiors is a highly-prized personality trait. The ability to problem solve independently is one of the marks of a creative, intelligent employee, which is essentially what employers are looking for. That being said, there are absolutely times in your career when you won’t be able to complete a task or project on your own, and in those cases, you really do need to ask for help. While it might not feel like your best moment, part of being a professional is being able to recognize when you can’t do something on your own and then effectively recruit others to lend a hand. Here’s how to do it efficiently and with grace.

1. Admit you need it. 

“I’m not sure it’s easy for anyone to ask for help at work,” says Jada Willis, Founder and Chief HR Advisor at Willis HR Advisory Group. “For some reason, we all believe we are professional superheros that shouldn’t make mistakes or have questions,” she adds. The truth is, we all need help every now and then, and that’s totally fine. So when you realize you really can’t do something by yourself, don’t try to sweep it under the rug. “The good news is that the majority of the human population will give help when asked appropriately,” Willis says.

2. If possible, don’t go straight to your boss.

Your manager is probably busy, and though they should be willing to help you when you need it, experts say you should look to your peers first, when feasible. “Your coworkers and colleagues all have a unique skill set. Whatever the problem is that you are having, go to the individual that has had the most success in the past with the skill set needed to fix the problem,” recommends Willis. “When approaching this individual, be sure to share your understanding of their expertise and be clear that you are seeking their help,” she says. That way, you’re acknowledging you’re coming to them because you respect their mastery of this skill set, not because you’re lazy. “Your supervisor should be the last resort,” Willis continues. That’s because as your supervisor, your boss wants to know that you did everything possible on your own before coming to them. Of course, if your boss is the only person in your company with the skills or knowledge to help you, then you should go to them first.

3. Understand your boss’ priorities before you ask them for help.

If you do end up having to go to your boss, make sure you have taken their perspective into account first. “You must identify your boss’ values,” says Maelisa Hall, psychologist and career coach. Basically, you don’t want to bother them with tasks that don’t fit with what’s really important to them. Ask yourself if what you’re working on lines up with their priorities before you walk into their office for assistance. The way you go about asking counts, too. “Some bosses hate email because they get too many emails. Others may hate random phone calls because it interrupts them for non-urgent issues. If you know the best way to reach your boss, you’re more likely to get a positive response,” Hall adds.  

4. Be clear on your ask.

Before reaching out to anyone else, determine whether you need an answer or an approach, suggests Leila Bulling Towne, executive coach and founder of the Bulling Towne Group. “When you ask your manager for an answer, you ask for a decision—an explicit judgment. It’s a closed-door discussion. When you ask your manager for an approach, you ask for suggestions or a direction on how to accomplish a task. It’s a dialogue, a conversation,” she explains. Knowing exactly what you’re looking for will make it easier to phrase your questions clearly and efficiently. This strategy also cuts down on the need for follow-ups, since you’ve already determined exactly what you need.

5. Don’t be that person.

The best way to make sure you’ll be able to get help when you need it? By being available to help others when they need it. “Be kind to your coworkers and always offer assistance to others, knowing that may be you in their shoes one day,” advises Hall. “People unconsciously want to repay you when you offer them help so building up that ‘karma savings account’ can have a huge payoff when you need a favor yourself.”

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