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The Right (and Wrong!) Ways to Ask for Help at Work

Topics: Career Advice
ask for help at work

Even if you’re the most organized person you know and willing to work round the clock to meet your goals, you won’t always be able to go it alone.

Sooner or later, even superstars need to ask for help at work. When that happens, you might panic. Our culture prizes individualism, strength and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Admitting that you need a hand can feel like failure, especially for high achievers.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The most successful people are the ones who recognize when they’ve reached their limitations. Eventually, you’re going to run across a problem you can’t solve on your own — at least, not on this schedule and with these resources. When that happens, the right thing to do is to ask your colleagues for a hand.

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Of course, it’s essential to know how to ask, so that your coworkers will be more willing to help out. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Let’s start with what not to do.

The Wrong Way to Ask for Help at Work

  • Wait until the very last minute. You’re busy. They’re busy. No one really has extra time to donate to the cause — but they’ll be more willing to find time if you’re respectful about when and how you ask. To make life easier on everyone, give as much notice as possible. That way you won’t be coming to them with your heart in your throat, asking for the impossible — and they won’t be frantically scanning the calendar to fit in everything.
  • Be vague. When you bring a problem to someone at work, whether it’s a team member or your boss, it helps if you know what you need. The more information you can provide about what you’re looking for, the better. If you’re vague when describing the problem, you’ll have to be a lot more flexible about the solution.
  • Ask in a way that makes it seem like you can’t handle your job. Whatever you do, don’t go to your boss with a complaint instead of a request for support. “Don’t go in there saying, ‘I have too much work’ because your boss has too much work, too,” says Joanna Broussard, president of the BizMark Group, a business development consulting firm in Chicago, speaking with The New York Times. “It’s much more politically astute to offer some solutions and ask for support.”

The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work

  • Find problems ASAP. Leah Weiss, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, tells CNBC that communication can help surface issues early in the project planning process. When you receive a new assignment, she recommends asking, “What do we need to do as soon as possible?” or “Which of these projects can be done tomorrow or later this week?” Worst-case scenario, your boss might say that everything is a top priority — but that’s a problem you’re better off facing right at the start.
  • Gather information before you panic. How many times have you let a new project stress you out … only to discover, once you had more info, that things weren’t as bad as you feared? Before you ask for help (or quietly freak out), make sure you have all the information you need to assess the situation. What are the deliverables? What’s the deadline? Who’s working with you, and what can they offer? Has your team worked on similar projects — and if so, what did you learn during the process that can help you with this assignment?
  • Help others when they need it. The best way to make sure that others will come to your rescue when you need it is to be a good teammate and help out whenever possible. No one wants to lend a helping hand to a coworker who’s always too busy to do the same. As an added bonus, being a good teammate will ensure that you always have plenty of networking contacts willing to make referrals and write recommendations. No job is forever, so it’s important to be the kind of coworker your colleagues will want to help long after you’ve all moved on.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you learned how to ask for help at work? We want to hear from you. Share your tips in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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