Are you (too) struggling to adjust? Ask for help!

by | Apr 10, 2020 | Books, Self-Leadership

During the current pandemic, many of us experience some things for the first time – salary cuts or job loss, difficulty getting groceries, lack of childcare, managing remote learning, missing our social contacts. We are adjusting and will get through this. But there’s something that could make it easier: Asking for help. 

That is easier said than done. In his latest book, All You Have To Do Is Ask, Sanger faculty champion and Michigan Ross Professor Wayne Baker explains why we struggle and how we can ask for help and support. Here are some of my take-aways. 

We don’t ask – and that comes at a cost. 

Do you generally try to figure things out yourself? Are you reluctant to ask for help and only do it when you are desperate and can’t think of anything else? If that is true, then you are not alone. Most people are reluctant to ask for help. 

When we don’t ask for help to do our work, it means that valuable existing resources, ideas, and solutions are not being tapped into – and that costs companies billions of dollars each year. 

But the failure to ask for help comes also at a personal cost. When we don’t ask, we don’t receive what we need. Baker writes, “Not asking for help is one of the most self-limiting, self-constraining, and even self-destructive decisions we can make.” Wow. Do I want to constrain and limit myself? No! 

What happens when we ask? 

Interestingly, while people hesitate to ask for help, most people are willing to help! So when we dare to ask, we “unlock human generosity” and receive more resources than we imagined. Research shows that the benefits of asking for help are numerous, including higher job performance and satisfaction, enhanced learning, creativity, and stress management. 

Organizations where asking for help is a norm experience increased team performance and productivity, reduced costs, better new hire success, and increased ability to find the right talent.

Why we don’t ask for help

If asking for help is so beneficial, why don’t we do it more? Baker explains several reasons:  

  • We underestimate others’ willingness and ability to help. This is true in general, but in particular, we usually don’t consider asking people we haven’t been in touch with in years. Yet Baker explains that especially these “weak or dormant ties” are valuable sources of help because “your knowledge and networks don’t overlap as much as they once did,” so it’s more likely that they know of resources that are unknown to you. Although we often assume people we haven’t heard from in awhile won’t respond to our request, in reality, they often welcome hearing from us and are happy to help. 
  • We try to be too self-reliant. Especially in the US, but also in other countries, doing it all is valued. We can get trapped in it and take it too far, trying to do it all even when we are overwhelmed or don’t have the necessary knowledge or resources. 
  • We think asking for help is a sign of weakness. Instead, research shows that asking for help “can increase perceptions of your competence if you make an intelligent request” (meaning you do your homework and don’t ask for things that you could easily find out yourself). 
  • We don’t know what to request or how to request it. This one is fascinating; I had never thought much about it. Baker provides helpful tips and tools to clarify our goals and needs and formulate them clearly which facilitates that we receive what we need. 
  • We worry we haven’t earned the privilege of asking for help and that we seem selfish.  This was one of my biggest aha’s. I used to believe that if I haven’t provided help to a person, I can’t ask them for help. But if everyone thinks that way, nobody is ever giving or receiving help! That means asking for help is critical to start a positive cycle of reciprocity. Reciprocity doesn’t mean I need to help the person I asked for help – it just means that I balance giving and receiving across the network of people – and even over the span of my life! So if you think that giving is better than receiving, think again! 

The last two reasons why we don’t ask for help relate to the organization we work in: We might not feel it is psychologically safe to ask for help and systems and procedures may be in our way.   

Useful tools

One of the most practical aspects of Baker’s book are the tools he describes to overcome the obstacles and become skilled and effective at asking for help. You’ll find useful team tools (e.g., how to insert a requesting routine into any meeting), a self-assessment to find out your asking-giving styles, and tools to make effective requests. On the book’s website, you’ll find a fun infographic

Building closer relationships during COVID-19

In these times of the pandemic, I also remembered that Baker explained how asking for help enables us to build closer relationships: People are likely to help you “because they infer an ‘affiliative motive’ behind your request – a desire for a closer relationship.” As a result, they feel closer to you and are more inclined to help you. 

So pause for a moment: What could you use help with? Who will you ask today?

All You Have to Do is Ask
By Wayne Baker, Sanger Faculty Champion, Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Management & Organizations at the Ross School of Business