The Paradox of Asking for Help

The Paradox of Asking for Help

How often do you ask for help? No matter what your answer is, it probably represents a small fraction of the times you would have been well served to request assistance. Why is it that so many of us actively resist asking for help?

For some, the reluctance comes from a belief that asking for help makes us seem weak, particularly if the issue is something we think we “should” know, or know how to do. Some leaders fear that admitting to subordinates that there are gaps in their knowledge or skills makes them less credible. Others buy into the fallacy that their selection into a given job means that they are expected to know everything about it. If they ask for help, they fear, they will be fired because they don’t.

I have two words for those who buy into any of the above beliefs: you’re wrong! Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Paradoxically, showing your vulnerabilities and imperfections increases your credibility rather than diminishes it. Why? Because it takes a person who is confident in his/her abilities to ask for assistance. In fact, asking for help is a critical success factor for leaders: when they ask for help themselves, they are giving others permission to do the same. Their example establishes a norm that it’s okay to request help because no one is expected to know everything, not even the boss.

The fact is, we all have talents and strengths in some areas and not in others. Those who believe otherwise are fooling only themselves. Leaders who leverage their strengths and find ways to manage their weaknesses create a synergy that energizes them, empowers employees, delights customers, and makes the organization an inspiring place to work. Superb athletes all have coaches who help them optimize their performance. Marshall Goldsmith, a world renowned and highly sought after executive coach, works only with highly successful leaders. And he has a coach as well.

For those who think I’m overstating the case for asking for help, let’s consider a workplace in which people choose not to solicit others’ assistance. For example, when employees are afraid of losing their jobs if they seek help, they may make uninformed decisions or take actions that are inconsistent with the organization’s mission or values. As a result, they waste time, energy, and money because someone has to re-do the work or repair the damage that was done. When the organizational culture doesn’t support information sharing, valuable institutional knowledge walks out the door with employees when they leave. Not asking for help also is bad for employee well-being: people who feel they need to cover up the fact that they don’t know everything expend a lot of energy in maintaining the pretext that they do. It wears them down physically, mentally, and emotionally. And it’s so unnecessary.

Instead, imagine the resources that could be put to more productive uses, and how much more quickly people could move up the learning curve if they felt free to request assistance as needed without giving it a second thought. Asking for help truly serves everyone well: the requestors learn something useful, the responders feel good because they are able to share their knowledge or talents, and customers and the organization reap the benefits of great service and productivity. In short, everyone wins.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and increase your credibility by asking for help!

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.


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