Asking for Help
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
When I first said yes to writing this article, I assumed it would be a breeze: Not only do I teach the skill of asking for help but, like many of the leaders I coach, I think that I have gotten pretty good at asking for help when I need it. In my enthusiasm for this topic, it was not until I sat down to write, hit a creative block and spent the better portion of a week quietly procrastinating while getting increasingly anxious that it occurred to me: Am I really attempting to write an article about asking for help without actually asking for help myself? For many leaders today, asking for what they want and need, be it more professional freedom, a promotion or help building a new business, can be a tricky proposition. As a leadership coach, I decided to investigate this topic further: What is it that holds us back from asking for help? Do women ask for less help than men? And why is asking for help so critical to leadership today?
When I met Debra, a 55 year-old business owner, she said: "I never ask for help if I have a choice. I'd rather go it alone than reach out and be disappointed.” Debra was raised like many of us to believe that asking for help would make her look weak, and that in order to prove her worth she had to figure out her challenges alone. When we met, her go-it-alone strategy had nearly run her business into the ground, and she was desperate for a new strategy that would produce different results. “We are socialized to equate asking for help with weakness,” says Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead. “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we are meant to be. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache.” According to Brown, to ask for help and not get it is paramount to biological rejection. Current neuroscientific research backs up this theory: Pain and feelings of rejection, shame, hurt, and disconnection are as real to the brain/body as physical pain. Emotions hurt, and behavior cues that signal shame and other painful emotions induce behaviors of not asking for help for fear of rejection.
Women particularly hold themselves back from speaking up, volunteering information, and asking for help: A 2018 study from the University of Cambridge evaluated 250 academic seminars and found that women are 2.5 times less likely to ask a question in seminars than men. In their seminal work Women Don't Ask, Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever claim: “Women simply don’t ask. They don’t ask for raises and promotions and better job opportunities. They don’t ask for recognition for the good work they do. They don’t ask for more help at home. In other words, women are much less likely than men to use negotiation to get what they want." The consequences for women of not asking for what they want are compounded over time. Babcock and Laschever find that, at the extreme, a woman who routinely negotiates her salary will earn over one million dollars more by the time she retires than a woman who accepts what she's offered every time without asking for more. Carley Roney, editor-in-chief TheBump.com, claims that women have to ask for more help than men because they consistently balance work, family, home duties. Many working mothers fall into a resentment trap, insisting in having the responsibility but resentful for not being recognized for it.
However, while women clearly hold themselves back from asking for help, men also have been conditioned to understand that asking for help is vulnerable, with potentially severe consequences: According to the American Psychological Association, men of all ages and ethnicities are less likely than women to seek help for all sorts of problems, including depression, substance abuse and stressful life events, even though they encounter those problems at the same or greater rates as women.
Why We Don’t Ask Asking for help is not a problem confined to women or men, it’s a human challenge. Our culture supports a myth that if we go it alone, we will be better off. A survey in 2014 of American's top core values conducted by Dr. Wayne Baker documented "self-reliance" among the top ten values.
Joseph Campbell - renowned professor and author of The Power of Myth the chronicles the hero's journey - claims that “you enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else's path. You are not on your own path.” We have come to believe that going it alone will insulate ourselves from being hurt and lead to bigger rewards. Self resilience - counting on oneself - feels like the logical choice if you have been let down in the past.
Asking for what we want takes courage and involves personal risk. But when we cut ourselves off from the vulnerability of asking in the first place, we also cut ourselves off from the possibility of connection. Amanda Palmer, the singer who crowdfunded a record setting 1.7 million dollars to pay for her solo album on Kickstarter, says in her ted talk The Art of Asking: "Crowdsurfing and crowdfunding are all the same thing: You fall in all the trust of these people. When we really see each other, we want to help each other."
“There needs to be a reason going it alone is part of your growth journey,” said Carey Baker, co-President of the Coach Training Institute. “If the solo path is about avoidance or separation from your world, that’s one thing. Not allowing ourselves to be helped is to cut off our purpose with each other. What if that help coming forward was part of their purpose?”
As we begin to understand the mechanisms of asking for help, we can start to see that it is a way we can serve others in addition to helping ourselves.
Benefits of Asking for Help Increasingly, great leadership requires asking for help. Christie Mann, creator of the movement to bring back Emotions and author of The Adventures of Lil Sass’ said, “If we don’t learn how to be more vulnerable and ask for help, we won’t survive as a species. Asking for help is essential for the new era of openhearted and vulnerable leadership today because the pace, complexity, and problems that we face insist we lean into others and solve them together. There is no way we will achieve our vision as a leader or our collective goals without reaching out and asking for help.” The benefits of asking for help have been well documented: In a paper written on advice seeking in 2015, Alison Wood Brooks, Francesca Gino and Maurice E. Schweitzer found that individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent than those who do not. Studies have also shown that help-seeking behavior is tied to greater performance in the workplace and that there are correlations between help-seeking behaviors and high performance in academic populations. We know that business cultures that have high collaboration, cooperation, innovation and risk taking are supported by high-degrees psychological safety, allowing individual to ask for help. Google’s five year study called “Project Aristotle” studied the connection between productivity and psychological safety, finding that being vulnerable in front of teams (ie. asking for help) was by far the most important dynamic that set successful teams apart. Many corporations have been catching on and institutionalizing help-seeking. As Dr. Wayne Baker reports, "industrial design firm IDEO has strong norms that motivate asking for and giving help. In their culture of helping designers are coached from the get-go to expect that they will need help and to ask for it. Watching others give and get help reinforces norms and creates a feeling of psychological safety. IDEO’s leaders model behaviors by asking for and giving help. The result of this culture of helping is a track record of superbly designed products that clients love."
How to Ask For Help
Can we all learn to be better about asking for help?
Carol S. Dweck, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, claims: “If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you're open to accurate information about your current abilities, even it it's unflattering. What's more, if you're oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively”.
A few simply strategies can help us start. In MayDay! Asking for Help in Times of Need, M. Nora Klaver suggests that we should “be straight forward, rely on the less obvious people, make a personal request and show gratitude when an agreement is struck.”
But asking for help is not only reaching out to for assistance, it can also be picking the path less traveled. “What if a version of asking for help was telling someone, ‘you’re fired’?” said Carey Baker, co-President of the Coach Training Institute. “We have an idea that the help is always a charitable thing, but asking for help is really the courage to trust yourself, to co-create with your world and to know what is needed in each moment. What kind of help do I need now? It requires constant awareness and consciousness.”
This version of asking for help is ultimately creative and infinite, based on the idea that we are constantly receiving and giving help in relation to our world. Carey Baker said: “If you’re really willing to ask for help or accept it, it will show up. Just looking there - just allowing yourself to be open to the thing you need - it will show up.”
In total, I asked for sixteen people to help me write this article. I started to realize that the stumbling blocks of procrastination, resentment and obfuscation can be seen as early warning signs that I need to reach out: Not just once, but several times, to find unlikely allies to help me achieve what would not have been possible on my own. Now I realize that asking and receiving constantly, and getting conscious about this process requires me to trust my own ability to create with my world. The added benefit of asking for help? Doing it together – in connection and community – is way more enjoyable at the end of the day.