Asking for Help: an Honest Look at Why It’s Scary

Asking for help is tricky. There are so many thoughts we project onto others when we’re contemplating whether we should step up and ask (“What will they think of me?” “Will I lose my job if they think I can’t hack it?”).

That said, burnout rates are escalating. We’ve become ever increasingly always on, unable to separate work from not work. And then life happens—a death in the family, a diagnosis of an illness, an accident, a breakup—things that are going to necessitate a great deal of emotional energy to address, process, and heal.

Despite all of this, we maintain a desire to portray ourselves as the invincible worker—someone who always has everything under control, who is all over their work. “Hey, pile it on! I can take more!”

At The Frontier Project, we strive to be an awesome place to work. Not only do we offer a great deal of flexibility, transparency, and autonomy, but we also strive to have an exceptionally high-functioning team that pushes each other to greatness and picks each other up when we trip. We aren’t perfect at this, but I think we’re pretty darn good. Against this backdrop, I figured we’d fare better than others when it comes to asking for help, so I asked my team for their thoughts.

It turns out we have anxiety about asking for help, too. Whether you’re an executive, a front line supervisor, a new manager, or an individual contributor, can you relate to some of my team’s responses to this question?

When you’re in a tough spot or overwhelmed with work, why would you NOT ask for help?

  • I might be worried I appear weak or incompetent.
  • I carry the shame of not being able to "handle it all."
  • I worry that sharing might cost me my job or cost me the respect of my manager or person I’m considering asking for help.
  • I might not want to burden someone else with my problems.
  • I feel like the problem is mine to solve.
  • I second-guess myself and wonder if I really am in a tough spot.
  • I compare myself to others and what their worlds seem like, and mine might not seem as bad, so I just decide to deal with it on my own.
  • The person I’m trying to ask isn’t accessible, or they could say something that would make me chicken out.
  • I might feel like I’ve failed or done something wrong or, even worse, don’t deserve the help.  
  • Because—I feel like—it’s easier to just do it myself! In the time it would take to ask for help, I could have just done the thing I needed to do.
  • I’m a little bit of a control freak and think that person won’t do it the “right” way.

Kind of bleak, huh? We can draw some great insights from these responses. As a leader, when someone on my team is struggling—especially when they have backed themselves into a corner and need to be rescued—I will frustratedly ask, “Why didn't you ask for help?” Clearly, there are 10+ great answers to my question.

We should not use these reasons as excuses to not ask for help, but, as leaders and coworkers, we can be more sensitive to how difficult the experience can be for someone.

“Sometimes, I feel guilty that I didn’t manage my own time better to do all the things I’m supposed to have done and asking for help will put that on display.”

Ironically, when I asked the same team members, "When you HAVE asked for help, what was the result?" the responses were overwhelmingly positive:

When you HAVE asked for help, what was the result?

  • Contradictory to my worries, I always tend to get a positive response. Even if somebody can't take the work because their schedule is already full, their response is always kind.
  • Someone always helps out! When I don’t give a lot of direction, sometimes someone does it better than I would have done myself, or comes up with a way better solution. People are usually honored and are happy to help and that you’ve come to them.
  • Asking for help has always had a great result. I try to always come to the table with ways I've tried to solve the issue already and why they haven't worked. That way the person knows I've thought this out and really respect their time.
  • In situations where I do have a reliable, competent resource and time, I've had great results asking for help.
  • The result has almost always been uplifting. It's rare that taking the time to show vulnerability backfires. It does happen, but it's more the exception vs. the rule. Additionally, camaraderie tends to be a fantastic side effect of asking for help.  
  • It’s been all that I could have hoped for and more. Complete understanding met with support and a plan forward to alleviate my stress and workload during a hard time.
When I don’t give a lot of direction, sometimes someone does it better than I would have done myself or comes up with a way better solution.

Furthermore, it turns out my team members honestly appreciate the opportunity to help one another out—especially when the person asking for help has already thought critically about the problem and can be specific about what they need and why.

When you are the one asked to help someone else out, how does it feel?

  • It makes me feel good! I feel privileged that someone trusts me enough to ask for my support. I always want to make time to help someone else in need because one day I know I will likely need the same.
  • Great. I love to help.
  • I love being the person people come to for help! It really makes me feel like I’m a part of the team and they trust me.
  • I love to be resource. Honestly, I feel one of the main parts of my job is to be available to the team. As for tasks outside of my specific function, I'm always happy to jump in and help in random ways.
  • If someone has tried to solve a problem on their own or is clearly out of their depth/wheelhouse, it feels fine to be asked, and I like to help others.
  • I tend to get impatient or annoyed with questions that could be easily answered with a little effort and critical thinking on the other person’s part.
  • Humbling. I strongly believe that people should be in a work environment where they can be themselves, even in the hardest times. Since I've witnessed my colleagues come together for me in the past, I strive to let it be known that I will also be there for them.

Responses such as “I tend to get impatient or annoyed with questions that could be easily answered with a little effort and critical thinking on the other person’s part” get at an important point: there is a good way to ask for help. Conveying you have tried to solve the problem—and that the person you’re asking has a unique skill set that can be useful—are great starting points. It can’t appear as if you’re just trying to dump your work on someone else. That will only build up resentment over time.

It can feel difficult to ask for help, but so often that’s just our egos telling us we need to be perfect, competent, and put-together all the time, and well, that’s just not realistic. When it comes to the difference between producing amazing work or a sub-par product, I’m assuming your team would always want you to raise your hand to get the assistance you need.

I’ll close this post with a beautiful story that’s a bit tangential, but a great representation of our shared humanity. It was contributed by Kelsey, our HR Manager who is pregnant with her first child.

“I had such a nice conversation with a doula friend about 2-3 weeks ago. I was saying how it's going to be a learning curve for me to ask for help with the baby. I have always been a very self-sufficient person (even as a child) and proud of that…I’m an only child, a single person, etc., so I have not had someone else to depend on to help me. I’m of the “If I don’t do it myself, who’s going to do it for me? No one! So I gotta do it!” mentality. She said that it would be a great gift to show my child how we exist in a society/community full of people we love, and it is important to show them that asking for help is a way to let people in and to give and show love. I thought that was a really cool sentiment and took it to heart completely. Can’t say I will be perfect at doing it, but I can already hear that little voice in my head in the past few weeks when people have offered to help me with things! [Now] I say “Of course, I need help because I can’t do this alone, nor do I want to because I love my circle of people and I’m happy to include you!”

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