Do you find it hard to ask for help?

I know I do. Partly because I don’t want to impose on anyone else. Partly because of pride: I like being independent, and asking for help feels like an admission that I’m not capable or that I’m conceding defeat.

Needing to ask for help often feels embarrassing and, at times, even humiliating. It reminds me of that scene in the movie “Oliver” where Oliver Twist is holding up his empty porridge bowl and begging, “more please, sir”.

While it’s good to have a sense of independence and to challenge yourself to find your own solutions, you can definitely take that too far.

The key is to know when it’s time to ask for help.

For each of us, there are times when it’s easier to ask for help and more obvious we need it.

In my case, I have no trouble asking for directions. I have a terrible sense of direction and have even become lost in office buildings trying to find the elevator. Because I get lost so often and I’m usually in a hurry, I’ve moved past the embarrassment and into a mode of practicality. As a result, I can ask without hesitation or embarrassment.

But most of the time, my instinct is to be resourceful and try to figure it out for myself.

The downside of not asking for help

The reality is that not asking for help has hurt my career and well-being at times.

There are two instances that stand out as times that I should have asked for help but didn’t. Each time, it turned out badly.

Not asking for technical help

The first was early on in my career when I was asked to go through eight sets of legal documents, summarize the bond covenant section of each and put the answers into a spreadsheet before the client meeting at 2 PM. It was only 10 AM so I said, “no problem”. Surely I could figure this out in four hours, even though I had never read through bond covenant documents before.

I lugged the documents back to my desk where I waded through the sea of legalese filled with clauses and terms like “notwithstanding”, “hereunder” and “hereinafter”. By lunchtime, I had only completed one out of the eight.

But instead of going back and asking for help, or better yet asking to swap projects with someone else given the deadline, I persisted. By 1:50pm, I had only completed two of the summaries.

I let the team down badly.

Fortunately, I wasn’t fired, but I was never again asked to work with this team. Whether it was for lacking the skills to understand bond covenants or lacking the sensibility to ask for help, I’m sure there was a black mark next to my name.

Worst of all, this experience dented my confidence and the negative mindset effects of it stuck with me for years.

Not asking for management support

The second instance was during the year I moved from New York to London to start a new business for the firm. All of our competitors were also going after the same opportunity. I was under significant pressure to produce results.

Without a team already formed, because I needed to hire and build it anew, I defaulted to my usual tendency, which is to do everything myself. I covered three out of the six European countries myself while building a new team and leading the strategic vision internally.

I can’t count the number of times I redoubled my efforts and shouldered the burdens for the team. In the process, I managed to alienate several of my stakeholders and almost burn myself out.

This turned out to be a terrible strategy. I should have and could have asked for help a lot earlier.

When to ask for help

What I’ve learned about myself is that there are three signs that are triggers for me to go get help.

  • When I’m feeling anxious or worried to the extent that I can’t focus and get things done
  • When I’ve tried to do it myself but am stuck in a loop without making forward progress
  • When I have no idea how to do something

For each of us, the triggers may be different. The important thing is to get in touch with what yours are so you’ll know when you need to ask for help.

You may even be able to pinpoint the exact language that you use in your head when you’re in this state of needing to ask for help. For me it often sounds like “Am I working on the right thing?” or for a colleague of mine, it’s the recurring phrase, “I feel like I’m not doing enough.” You may find patterns here that make it easier to recognize when you need to get help.

Making it easier to ask for help

When it comes to actually asking for help, the way you frame it makes a difference.

When you think of it as “imposing on someone” or “humiliation” or “conceding defeat”, of course you’re less likely to resort to it.

Instead, think of it as “leveraging your resources” or “inviting in new points of view” or “getting results quicker”. Then you can come at it from a sense of greater productivity and give others a chance to contribute.

The flip side is that sometimes you’ll be the one in a position to help someone else who’s feeling anxious, unsure or frustrated. So look out for signs, recognizing that we all display them differently. Some people get quiet and withdraw. Others become emotional or angry. And sometimes, people try to please and say “no problem, I’ve got this“ when they really don’t – just like me with the bond covenants!

When you see those signs, offer to help in case they happen to struggle with asking for it themselves.

The bottom line

The bottom line is this: we all need help at times.

And even though you or I may feel alone or ashamed, we are not alone. Go reach out and get the help you need. And when the tables are turned, make yourself available to help someone else.

So how about you?

Do you know when to get help? And what could someone help you with now?

Leave a comment and let me know.