Leadership is knowing when to ask for help, accepting it with grace, and learning how to offer it. “ ~ Larysa Slobodian
My first job out of college, I was project engineer. I was managing a construction project at a large candy manufacturer in New Jersey, (think plain or peanut). Projects at this client were very stressful because they involved a complete shutdown of manufacturing, which resulted in loss of revenue. Being efficient was critical.
During one project, I realized that my team made a mistake and the project might run late. After trying to fix this problem on my own without success, I realized that I had to tell my client, which resulted in a meeting of several senior managers and I trying to reconfigure the schedule and fix the problem. It was a stressful meeting. One of my client’s senior leaders asked if I should be in charge of the project given my mistake. I tried to assure him, that I was capable of correcting the error. He then gave me some great advice. He said, “You did make a mistake, but I’m not talking about the technical error. Your mistake was not asking for help when you realized that you were in trouble. You tried to do it yourself. If you want to be successful, you have got to learn to ask for help when you need it and not wait. ” I sat there, stunned. He was right. I knew that something was up early on and I was too nervous to reach out to anybody. I was too embarrassed to tell the client that I needed more time. I did not want to let anybody down. I thought that by asking for help, that I had failed, when in fact, I failed by not acknowledging that I needed help. I put everybody in a bind by not pulling people into the conversation early, owning my error and asking for help. That was over 20 years ago, and I still remember that advice as well as the sinking feeling that I had when I realized my great error.
Today, I wonder. What is it about asking for help that causes such an internal stir in us? Instead of just coming up with the answer on my own, I asked for some help. I informally surveyed a few dozen people in various leadership positions in various industries, men and women, to share with me their answer to this question.
What keeps you from asking for help? Here are the top themes of the results, in order.
1.Pride, shame, embarrassment or not wanting to look weak or give the appearance of needing help, wanting to look strong. (46 % and the most common answer given by men, but not exclusively)
2. I don’t want to bother other people, especially if I know that they are busy too. (25 %) (this answer was the most common answer given by women and only women)
3. Control, easier to do it myself, like to figure it out on my own. (21%)
4. Doesn’t occur to me, until things are really bad or it’s too late. (7%).
I did not poll hundreds of people, but still, I am struck that almost half of the respondents shared something related to pride, or shame. I am wondering, what story do we have about asking for help. It seems to me that our culture, American/Western culture, has a view of what it means to ask for help; that asking for help is somehow a sign of weakness, of defeat, a problem. Many of us believe that there is not only something wrong with asking, but that there is something wrong with us for asking.
That last sentence gives me pause. What does it say about us as a society that we judge ourselves negatively for needing or wanting help? Is it not ironic that we find ourselves wishing that our team, or direct reports would come to us and let us know when they need help if we somehow portray an image that we ourselves never need help and that we may somehow be defective if we do? Why is it O.K. for others to ask me for help, but not O.K. for me to ask others for help? How can that be? I don’t think that it can. I have not found the do as I say, not as I do style of leadership to be effective or sustainable. If leaders want to create a culture of support, of team work and of transparency, (which I often hear that they do), then modeling asking for help can be a powerful tool for shifting the fear and shame around asking and also free up valuable time and energy spent on worry and debate about asking or mistakes that occur as a result, (see my own example in the 1st paragraph). Even if we believe that we are “bothering others” by asking for help, then that story also carries some powerful messages about help; that we are bothering others, that their time is more valuable, or that they do not want to help.
In corporate life, we create “work teams”, with the idea that we all work better and more efficiently in a team than alone. Yet it is often in these very teams and organizations that people fear asking for help.
I want to acknowledge that there can be a stigma with asking for help in our society especially in certain organizations, professions and cultures. I recently read an article that gave advice on how to ask for help without looking stupid. Good article and what’s the underlying message? Does asking for help make us look stupid? Go to a book store and there is an entire section on “Self Help”. Of course we must help ourselves, motivate ourselves and be competent at our jobs. Both asking for help too much or not enough can have consequences. There is a polarity to manage and there are consequences for spending too much time around either end of the polarity. For this article, I am focusing on the end of the polarity stick that represents not asking.
My intention is to offer you some points to ponder around this topic and to perhaps collectively shift the story that we carry around asking for help.
Here are some steps.
FIRST, ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PART
- Acknowledge your own story about asking for help. The next time you find yourself in need of help or support, see what role your story is playing. What role is your inner critic playing? Is there an underlying fear that you have?. Check out your story. Is it true? What if it were not true? What if asking for help was truly a sign of strength? Where do you need more information?
NEXT, WHAT TO DO
- Think about what it is that you need. If you’re not sure what you need, then where are you stuck? What is not going the way that you want it? Be authentic and ask for what you need or acknowledge where you are stuck.
- Be timely. When to ask for help is as important as asking for help. Wait until things are a mess and you will only need more help and possibly under greater duress.
- If you are worried about bothering the other person, do you trust the person to say no if they cannot help? Are you projecting your own issues with saying no onto them? Hold people capable of saying no. One word of caution, if you are the boss, realize that your rank will play a factor in the person’s ability to say no. If saying no is truly an option, then you must be very clear about it or consider asking somebody else.
APPRECIATION AND SETTING THE TONE FOR THE FUTURE
- Return the favor. Let the person know that you appreciate the help and any lessons that you learned. You can offer your own availability for help in return. Keep in mind that the other person will have his or her own story about asking for help.
- Do people come to you for help? If not, it may be an indicator that you are not available or are giving the impression that you are so strong that you never need or want help. Asking for help can feel quite vulnerable so you as the leader must be willing to demonstrate vulnerability as well.
- If asking for help is uncomfortable or unfamiliar to you, then it may feel awkward for you at first. Be gentle with yourself. If you need help, then you probably won’t benefit from criticizing yourself along the way. Just like anything else, you will need to practice it, and as you do, you will create change in yourself and those that surround you. You may also build support for the very thing that you are getting help with, since people often gain feelings of investment in projects to which they contribute. By getting help, you may also be building support.
- Get feedback on your ability and timing to ask for help as well as your availability and approachability to offer it.
We all need and can benefit from help from time to time. It is an illusion that we do not need help, yet we often support that illusion. Through help, we can work better, more efficiently and perhaps with less struggle. Are there places in your work, your life, your leadership with which you would like some help? Does your team help each other? What difference would it make to you and to others if you had help? What small step can you take to get the help that you need? You can make a difference.
I will leave you with this African proverb.
“If you want to go fast, walk alone, if you want to go far, walk together”.
I wish you courage, support and success on your leadership journey.
Larysa Slobodian, MA
Executive Coach and Principal Consultant, L4 Leadership LLC