Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Know When You Should Figure it Out as You Go (and When You Should Ask for Help)

Navigating tricky workplace decisions can be often feel just as stressful as trying to coordinate a get-together with all your friends in one email chain. There are so many (conflicting) messages about how to be a professional. Be proactive, but also measured. Take initiative, but also collaborate. “Just figure it out,” but also, “know what you don’t know.”

Small wonder that sometimes we don’t know whether we should charge forward on our own or ask for help. Thankfully, there are some guidelines you can follow to know when you should go it alone—and when you should reach out for support.

1. If You’re Capable, But a Little Afraid—Go for It

Seize these moments! A little dose of fear keeps you motivated and helps you learn. If you’ve been given an assignment or responsibility that’ll stretch your abilities, but you have a pretty good idea of how to accomplish it, take it.

Are you a web copywriter being given a chance at crafting your first landing page? Take it on and learn about conversions, calls-to-action, and more. Are you an administrative professional who’s been in involved with every company event for months and are now being asked to run point? Say “yes” and add event planning skills to your resume.

Professional challenges—like projects just a bit little outside of your comfort zone —can lead to new opportunities and knowledge. While it’s true that you don’t want to commit to something you can’t follow through on, if there’s only a slight skills gap from having never done something before, challenge yourself to step up to the plate. After all, that’s how you’ll learn.

2. But if You Don’t Understand the Project Parameters—Ask for Help

If you flat-out do not understand what you’re being asked to do, you should always ask for clarification. It’s easy to feel pressure to project independence and competence. But if you say, “Got it!” and head off with no clue what you’ve even been assigned, everyone will suffer in the end.

Whether your boss left you a cryptic memo or a client meeting was full of more cliches than clear feedback, if you don’t ask for clarification, your final efforts will disappoint.

So, reach out sooner rather than later. Try calmly repeating back what you think you heard: “What I’m hearing you say is that I should pull the new dataset before next Friday. Is that correct?” Then, let the other person correct you and clarify if necessary.

3. If Resources Abound and You Can Teach Yourself—Go for It

So you’ve been given an assignment you’re not entirely sure about. Is it something plenty of people have done before? Have they written about it?

If yes, then do your research. A task that seemed beyond the pale for you may suddenly become a lot clearer after some time watching instructional YouTube videos and reading a few in-depth blog posts.

Before you tell your boss, “But, I’ve never written a business plan!” Google how to do it. Keep in mind, if your manager is coming to you with a new task, it’s likely because there’s no go-to person on the team and she thinks it could be a good fit for you. You owe it to yourself to at least explore if this could be your new thing. (Bonus: Having an expert niche makes you more valuable.)

4. But If You Don’t Know How to Do it—Ask for Help

This one gets a bit confusing, because you just read that if you’re on the bubble as to whether or not something is within reach, you’re supposed to stretch yourself and consult online resources. And if you think you could maybe do something, ask your boss if you can get back to him. Then, take some time to think through how you might approach it and see if some reading will answer your questions.

If after that step, you feel like you could be involved in the project, but you’ll need guidance, ask for help! Take advantage of the people around you who may have done similar projects before. Is there someone in another department who could give you pointers? Can any of your teammates or coworkers show you how to get started?

Now, if a project falls on the other side of the spectrum (a.k.a., you know offhand just asking for help won’t be enough), be honest with yourself—and your manager. If you’ve been asked to write a code in Python and you don’t know the language, it’s not the right assignment for you. So, rather than accepting and plan to ask for loads of help, your best bet is to suggest someone else with more experience run point—and ask if you can play a supporting role or help in some other way.

5. If Only You Can Do it—Go for It

“I’m the only one who can do it!” may sound like the classic refrain of the office martyr, but sometimes, it’s true! You could quite literally be the only person in the office who can do the task, for whatever reason.

These cases will come up, and sometimes you just have to set aside all the well-meaning advice about asking for help when you’re overloaded and learning to delegate. If you’re it for the project, because your teammates are out sick, stuck in meetings across town, or some key position on your team was vacated and has yet to be filled; you’ll just have to rise to the occasion.

There are two things to keep in mind in this situation. First, if you do nothing, there’ll be zero people working on the task—and one is always better than zero! Second, once you pull off your impressive one-woman show, don’t be overly humble. You deserve credit for stepping up and adding this project to your list. Make sure your boss knows you’re going above and beyond.

The workplace can feel full of “shoulds.” You should develop the right skills. You should be assertive. You should be humble. You should be engaged. You should be a team player. You should be a leader. You should ask for assistance. You should take initiative and do it yourself.

Truth talk: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But a little self-awareness and a heavy dose of common sense can usually point you in the right direction when you’re unsure whether to charge ahead independently or ask for help.

Photo of co-workers courtesy of Clerkenwell/Getty Images.