Archive for April, 2011

Asking for help

Asking for help is a confusing and difficult proposition for many of us. I notice it in my professional work with clients and in my personal life. What is that about? After all, we have different skills and strengths and different interests. We can easily provide help to one another because of these different strengths and skills.

In fact, the folks who wrote the Strengthsfinder literature, Marcus Buckingham, Donald Clifton and Tom Rath – Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Clifton and Buckingham (2001) and Strengths Finder 2.0 by Rath (2007) – believe that we should not be wasting our time trying to improve our weaknesses, but rather we should concentrate on enhancing and refining our strengths by managing around our weaknesses. One of the ways to do that is to get help from others who are strong in the areas in which we are not.

Yet, we seem to throw up barriers. Here are some that I have heard:

  • I should know how to do this – that’s why they hired me.
  • It’s easier if I do it myself – I can do it better and faster.
  • I am the leader – leaders don’t ask for help.
  • Asking for help means I am weak.
  • I can’t risk the vulnerability that comes with asking for help.
  • If I ask for help, it means that I have to take action that I am not ready to take.
  • I have only so much “currency” with this person or these people; I can’t spend it on this.
  • I don’t want to bother him/her/them…

There are many different kinds of help. We purchase certain kinds through professional services. Edgar Schein in his book, called Helping (2009), believes that the “social and psychological dynamics of helping are the same whether we’re talking about giving directions or coaching an organizational client or taking care of a sick spouse.” He looks at the dynamics of helping from a cultural and sociological view and also says that all helping relationships are “initially unbalanced and ambiguous.”  That view leads to another four reasons, at least, for why we have a hard time asking for help:

  • What will I “owe” this person for helping me?
  • Do I have the wherewithal to reciprocate?
  • I don’t really believe that anyone can help me the way I envision.
  • What if after making myself vulnerable enough to ask, I don’t feel helped?

Now that I have enumerated the myriad reasons why it’s hard to ask for help, I want to put in a plug for the benefits of asking.

As a leader or facilitator of an organization or an initiative, one of the most powerful tools we/you have is to ask for help! Asking for input, asking people to use their strengths for the benefit of the organization, asking people to work with others to address a challenge shows people that you value their contribution.  Folks want to be genuinely involved and invested in the place in which they work. They want to contribute and they want to be useful. And they won’t necessarily offer if you don’t ask. In my mind, there is great strength in showing a certain vulnerability. Let’s be realistic: leaders can’t and don’t know everything. Nor do they make the right decisions all the time. And back to the Strengthsfinder authors: it is smart leadership to use others’ strengths. Leaders are likely to reach better solutions when they have diverse views to consider or trusted people with diverse perspectives contributing to the decision. The benefits outweigh the reasons not to ask.

Asking for collegial and/or personal support may seem even riskier. After all, there are no guarantees that we will be able to or know how to reciprocate; no guarantees we’ll get the help and support we seek and no guarantees that we won’t feel vulnerable.  But I would argue again that the benefits outweigh the risks. Maybe we will redefine reciprocity. Maybe we’ll be surprised with how helpful someone is able to be; maybe someone’s help makes the difference in the outcome of a decision or a problem. And friends and colleagues really want to help; they want to be asked; they want to contribute and they want to be useful.  We need community. We need to hear different perspectives. And I think that the intangible and really precious benefit of asking for help and receiving it is the possibility of deepening our human connection.


Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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