Help Me Please?

February 17, 2015

I don’t particularly like asking for help. Unfortunately the career development buzzwords – knowledge sharing, collaboration, networking and mentorship – require one to overcome the difficult barrier that is admitting a shortcoming and seeking help.

When I dig a bit deeper into this tendency, there are a lot of fears and insecurities that pop up. It starts small, and I tell myself that without knowing who to approach in my company, it is better to figure it out on my own. Next, even if I know where to go for help, I rationalize that the expert I need to talk to is very busy and probably will not have the time to help me out. I look at the problem I am having, and think it is small, and not worth bringing someone else in. From there it becomes a bit more personal as I question my own abilities. If I can’t do this, am I qualified to do my job? If I ask for help, will I look dumb? Am I supposed to know this already? Very quickly, I determine that I had better figure it out on my own before someone discovers my woeful ignorance.

If it becomes chronic, this pattern of thinking has several destructive effects. For my company, I am wasting my coworkers’ time and resources to figure something out that other people have already done. For my project, I am not applying the best knowledge available. For me, I am not growing my network, building relationships or gaining access to the world class technical experts who are perfectly willing to spend five minutes helping me.

To break this cycle, I want to lay out a different, better way to think about asking for help. This is based on three key ideas:

Asking for help builds trusted relationships

Help is a magical word that opens the door for authentic relationships to develop. Instead of reaching out to an expert and asking for mentorship, or trying to set up an open ended “introduction” meeting to network, asking for help lets you sit side by side with someone to solve a problem. Contrary to the thoughts arising from my insecurities, most people enjoy being asked for help. It affirms that they are knowledgeable and valuable within the organization, which lends meaning and purpose to their job. Furthermore, when you ask someone for help who is not within your immediate office or project, it gives you access to his or her unique knowledge base and powerfully enhances your personal network.

Asking for help grows your technical skills

As an entry level engineer, you can have superb technical skills and an impressive education, but lack the decades of project experience that gives more experienced engineers their seasoned judgment. When you ask for help, you get the benefit of seeing how a more experienced professional would handle the problem that you have encountered. This is one of the few ways that you can add judgment to your technical skills without first making a mistake. Furthermore, we all know it is impossible to stay up to date on all of the new technologies and projects that are going on around the world. Asking for help will quickly increase your awareness of the best new technologies and expand the horizon of possibilities when it comes to design. This also prevents you from spending a lot of time working on a sub-optimal solution when someone else has already figured out a better way.

Asking for help gives instant feedback on your work

Finally, asking for help can give you a valuable feedback mechanism to determine how well you are doing your work. It is easy to fall into patterns and habits that seem right, but hours, days, or even weeks later, we find out that a significant amount of work was based on an erroneous assumption. This costs time and money to fix and is extremely frustrating from a personal perspective. When you ask for help, someone with a different perspective challenges the way we think. Their viewpoints can help expose blind spots and increase the quality of your work.

I want to end with a few practical suggestions when it comes to asking for help.

  • Make an implicit promise – Let someone know what they are getting into with an implicit promise of the time commitment. For instance, instead of saying: “can you help me with ________?” Say instead: “could you take 15 minutes to help me with _________?”
  • Start your ask with encouragement – When you are asking someone to help you, use it as an opportunity to tell someone they are doing a good job or that they have an excellent reputation. For instance, “Jenny, I have heard that you are very experienced in finite element analysis and that you do really good work. Do you, by chance, have ten minutes to help me address a modeling issue I am having with a project?”
  • Go outside of your normal circles – One of the most frequently documented trends in sociology is a tendency for people to connect with others who are like themselves. Don’t do this. Ask for help from a variety of people with a variety of different experience and job titles. This will help you to break out from your typical patterns and routines. This will provide marvelous networking opportunities and access to new knowledge.

So, the next time that you get stuck on a project, and fear and insecurity start to creep in, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

John Wanberg, PhD is a Knowledge Strategy Manager in the Global Talent Development division of MWH Global.
1 Comment
  • Really an excellent article. Most of us, certainly I, have had to overcome the fear of looking ignorant of something in order to be successful. No one knows it all — as much as I have tried! Asking for help using the suggested techniques is good for all concerned — the one asking, the one bring asked, and the organization. As stated, it’s a great (powerful) way I meet people and to build relationships and form better teams.

    On a social level I met a neighbor who was an upper level manager for Coca-Cola. I was an engineer and construction manager. We had just met and were discussing something he dd not understand. I recall him saying ” Help me out here.” I was happy to do so, and probably flattered. That was 30 years ago and we are solid friends to this day.

    Give the suggested approach a try. You’ll be better off for it.

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