Creating a Culture of Contribution by Asking for Help



In the workplace, asking for help can mean the difference between success and failure. This isn’t anecdotal—in fact, research has revealed a number of proven benefits, such as: 

  • Higher job performance and satisfaction.
  • New-hire success. 
  • Finding jobs—or talent for job openings. 
  • Creativity and innovation. 
  • Managing stress. 
  • The benefits of help-seeking accrue to teams and organizations through team performance, cost reduction, productivity, and profitability. 

Based on research, plus 25 years of business consulting and teaching experience, I’ve identified eight main reasons we don’t give ourselves permission to ask for the things we need. Understanding these obstacles can empower you to overcome, circumvent or avoid them. 

1. We Underestimate Other People’s Willingness and Ability to Help. 
Many of us assume that others aren’t willing to help. We fear we’ll be rejected. Or we figure that even if others are willing to help, no one will have the time or ability. Whenever this happens, my response is always the same: “You never know what people know or who they know until you ask. Don’t prejudge the capabilities of the group. Just ask for what you really need.” And when they do, they are rarely disappointed. 

2. We Over-Rely on Self-Reliance.  
The value of self-reliance is one of the few that is shared among a wide swath of Americans: across differences in education, income, race, religion, political ideology and region of the country. Then once we enter the workplace, self-reliance becomes a powerful motivator, and one that is regarded as a mark of grit, ambition and productivity. And while there are certain benefits to being seen as a “self-starter,” it’s possible to take things too far. If you don’t seek advice from your coworkers, you lose valuable opportunities to learn, grow and develop. If you don’t enlist the help of others to take your innovative ideas from inception to completion and implementation, they’ll wither on the vine.

3. We Perceive There to Be Social Costs of Seeking Help. 
A close cousin of overreliance on self-reliance is the belief that competent people don’t ask for help. Organizational psychologists call this the “social costs of seeking help.” According to this belief, if you can’t figure everything out for yourself, you’re telling others that you’re weak, lazy, ignorant, dependent or incapable of doing your job. 

The good news is that this fear is largely unfounded. Under the right circumstances, asking for help can actually increase perceptions of your competence, according to research by a Harvard-Wharton team. For one, asking for advice says you are confident. It conveys wisdom (you know what you don’t know, and you know when to ask). And it says you are willing to take risks. But to make a positive impression, you have to make an intelligent request. Asking for advice about a challenging task will increase perceptions of your competence, but asking for advice about a simple, easy or trivial one will make people think you’re either incompetent or lazy.

4. Our Work Culture Lacks Psychological Safety. 
It’s a sad fact, but in some workplaces, asking for help may have negative consequences. These workplaces lack psychological safety—“a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” When teams lack psychological safety, people are afraid to bring up problems, ask questions, face tough issues, make mistakes or do anything that makes them feel exposed and vulnerable. Add high-performance pressure, and people live in a constant state of anxiety—frantic to perform but afraid to try anything new or ask anyone for help.

Psychological safety is essential for people to perform well, especially when performance expectations are high. Based on a study of their own teams, researchers at Google learned that psychological safety is the key to team effectiveness.

5. The Systems, Procedures or Structure of Our Organization Get in Our Way. 
Of course, all leaders want their people to be good organizational citizens, and yet an entire book could be written about all the ways that formal systems, procedures, and practices inhibit behaviors like asking for and giving help. Three common pitfalls are hiring the wrong people, conflicting incentives and organizational size and silos.

6. We Don’t Know What to Request or How to Request It. 
There are many reasons people struggle with this. Lack of needs isn’t one of them. Not knowing what you need is. Most of us are simply not in the habit of articulating goals, or what we need to achieve them. And without knowing where we are going or what we need to get there, it’s hard to come up with a request that moves you forward. 

The second reason is that even once you know what you need, you may not know how to ask for it. A poorly formulated request can make you seem less competent and is unlikely to get the responses you need, as people analytics expert Nat Bulkley and I found in our large-scale study of asking, receiving and giving. 

7. We Worry We Haven’t Earned the Privilege of Asking for Help. 
We understand that asking for help is a privilege. And the privilege is earned by giving. Both these statements are technically true; however, if everyone waited to give before they received, then no giving would take place. The way out of this quandary is to recognize that the acts of giving and receiving are a cycle, not a two-way transaction; the objective is to be both a giver and a receiver, in equal measure, over time. Put another way, the “books” can be unbalanced on any given day as long as you’re breaking even in the long run. And the books need not be balanced with any single person; rather, they should be balanced across the network of people with whom you interact. 

8. We Fear Seeming Selfish.  
Finally, we are often reluctant to ask for help because we are afraid we’ll be seen as selfishly pursuing our own self-interest at the expense of others. Remember, giving and receiving isn’t about a tit-for-tat exchange. It’s about a higher form of reciprocity—what we call “generalized reciprocity”—that drives the flow of resources through networks. 

Asking for help is an essential ingredient in starting the exchange of resources across our personal, business and professional networks because it initiates the process of giving and receiving. The secret to a culture of contribution is giving yourself and others permission to ask. 

Originally published on the HRPS blog.




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