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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work

I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but at some point in my career, I started to believe “help” was a four-letter word. OK, well, it technically is, but you know what I mean. Somewhere, I had picked up the idea that asking for help was tantamount to admitting weakness, and ultimately, failure.

It wasn’t until I had a team of my own to manage that I realized that there’s real value in admitting “Hey! I need help.” I had a few employees who were in their first jobs out of college, and, to put it bluntly, they had a lot to learn. I didn’t expect them to know everything—yet, somehow, they always seemed to think that I did, and, by consequence, that they shouldn’t ask questions. It rarely ended well.

What I learned from the experience was that asking for help is a delicate endeavor—but when done right, it’ll get the job done faster or better. Plus, chances are, everyone will gain valuable experience and ultimately strengthen his or her base for a successful career.

After spending some time gauging my own reactions when my team approached me for assistance—or didn’t—I’ve been able to pull out a few key tips that I now use whenever I need a little help myself.

1. Try, Then Pry

The first step to asking for help is to make sure you actually need it. In other words, explore all of the possible solutions—including the obvious ones. It only takes one time for your manager to ask you, “Why didn’t you try X?” to realize how much it pays off to check the simple solutions off your list.

I once dated a firefighter, and he imparted a piece of wisdom that I keep in mind to this day. He was describing the procedure of running into a burning house, and I interrupted (wide-eyed, of course) to ask if he had to break the door down to get in. He responded, “Try first, then pry.” He went on to describe how—in what I imagine must be part of some hazing ritual—the crew let him throw his shoulder at a door for what seemed like an eternity before someone simply turned the doorknob to open it.

The moral of the story? Before you start banging your shoulder—or head—against a door, make sure you’ve tried to open it the old-fashioned way first. It won’t always work, but you’ll want to be damn sure you know it doesn’t before your boss tries it herself.

2. Don’t Be a Martyr

While there’s definitely something to be said about trying to resolve an issue yourself first, torturing yourself for hours—or days—before finally admitting you need help is almost never productive. I remember staying in the office until well past 1 AM one time, trying to resolve a particularly nasty issue, and although fatigue and frustration had been clouding my mind for hours, I still felt it was important that someone—everyone—knew how hard I was working to solve the problem.

As I quickly learned, this didn’t actually earn me any points with anyone. While managers (myself included) appreciate dedication and diligence, we loathe inefficiency. If your boss sees you beating yourself up over something, she’s more likely to be thinking, “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?” rather than view you as an industrious and dedicated employee.

The trick here is knowing when it’s time to suck it up, swallow your pride, and admit you’re stuck. My general rule of thumb is basically the "Three Strikes" rule. If I can’t figure something out after I’ve exhausted at least three other solutions on my own, it’s time to admit I need a little inspiration.

3. Prepare a Menu of Questions or Options

Now, when you know you need to ask for help, don’t just go knocking on your manager’s door to surrender. The best thing you can do is to come armed with a few potential solutions (even if you have no idea where to start). This not only shows that you’ve thought through the issue on your own first, but also that you’re not asking for a handout—you’re trying to get the job done together. Plus, giving your boss a “menu” of options enables her to quickly assess your ideas, and, if needed, come up with a few of her own.

With this approach, you’ll effectively turn what could’ve been a cry for help into a collaborative session with a senior member of your team—and that’s always a good thing.

As I’ve discovered, asking for assistance can be a powerful tool if you employ it strategically. Keep these tips in mind when you find yourself a little over your head, and you’ll guarantee your manager and colleagues won’t be uttering any four-lettered words when you need their help.

Photo of co-workers talking courtesy of Shutterstock.