When and How to Ask for Help at Work

When someone asks you for a favor, and you have the capacity to help them, it’s a truly great feeling.  In fact, one of the best sentiments can result in knowing that you have made a big difference through a relatively small gesture.  Moreover, knowing that you, yourself, have someone to rely upon during times of difficultly is also quite comforting.

However, when it comes to the workplace, the way in which we view giving and receiving help often takes a different turn.

Asking for Help at Work_man confused at laptop

Asking for Assistance is Not a Weakness

While autonomy and the ability to troubleshoot independently are seen as assets in the employment world, there are often situations when incorporating another team member is absolutely necessary; especially in particularly challenging situations with stringent deadlines.

Asking others for assistance demonstrates that you trust them.  It also demonstrates that you are confident enough to admit needing an extra point of view and have the capacity to cooperate and collaborate with others.

In the workplace, asking for help when you really need it can even strengthen your team by allowing others to contribute and recognize their own importance and abilities.  Additionally, with more knowledge and experience focused on a particular problem, you have the opportunity to generate significantly better solutions and results.

Reasons Why Employees Avoid Asking for Help

They might say no!  It happens, but not very often.  Even if a coworker or superior does refuse, most will try to direct you to another individual who has more experience with the specific issue you are having, understanding that it is not their particular specialty.

I could lose control of the project.  That’s always possible, but the greater likelihood is that you’ll be respected for seeking help when you need it rather than wasting time and resources.  In fact, individuals who refuse to ask for help have a greater chance of damaging projects in the long run. Your superiors would prefer you communicated your difficulties and incorporated other team members, rather than suffer in silence for the sake of portrayed autonomy, while the task or project in question suffers on the sidelines. Furthermore, this approach can actually offer the impression of incompetence.

Only I can do it right.   If you happen to be in a managerial or supervisory position, this situation will likely apply to you. There are probably certain tasks at which you excel, and others which you find more challenging.  Likewise, the areas where you do indeed provide significant value may only require about 20 percent of your time.  Chances are that you participate in a significant amount of work which could actually be handled by someone else with less skill, if only you trained and trusted them.

So, while in this case, requesting help may not mean that you don’t have the knowledge or skill to perform the task, there is always the possibility that you may have an opportunity to delegate certain aspects to others who are perfectly willing and capable of completing them with the goal of freeing up more of your own time for more important undertakings.

It makes me nervous.  Make sure you are asking the right person for assistance.  That might involve asking a co-worker exactly who you should ask for help.  Aside from bearing in mind the old adage that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, you’ll have very few problems if you show your potential assistant your CHOPS.  Remember to be:

  • Considerate of their time—give them an easy way to feel good about helping;
  • Honest about the problem—don’t embellish the need;
  • Organized in your approach to solving it—describe your plan logically;
  • Particular in describing when & what you need from them; and then
  • Show them how they benefit.

If you are stymied with a problem, having taken several runs at it, briefly describe what you’ve tried, and then list a couple of things you haven’t tried (even if you don’t have any particular faith in them).  This provides a jumping-off point for discussing potential solutions.

When you’re looking for help, you don’t want to walk into someone’s office, throw up your hands with an “I give up” attitude. Having some ideas, even if they’re not good ones, can make someone more empathetic and enthusiastic toward your issue, instead of pitying or even annoyed.

Asking for Help at Work_ employes at laptop

Good Leaders Seek Help

As mentioned, as potential leaders, we want to show our autonomy as well as our ability to troubleshoot and manage efficiently.  However, effective leaders can identify the times when it may be in his or her best interest to speak up and ask for assistance.

“Leadership is solving problems.  The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.”

-Colin Powell

The Takeaway

Ultimately, the aim is to make it our consistent policy to help other people.  Not only does offering assistance provide an undeniable amount of satisfaction and experience, but it helps you build up some good “karma” for the next time you are in need of support.  If you have a reputation for being helpful, those you assisted will be more willing to assist you when you need it.

In fact, this concept even transcends beyond those you directly assist; your reputation grows as a helpful person, so others are willing to help you when required.  Show your coworkers and superiors you’ve got the CHOPS.

Fred Coon, CEO


At SC&C we offer Career Analysis to help senior decision-makers from all walks of life identify strategies and tactics to increase their value-add employment potential.