The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work

Bill Thomas knew nothing about steel mills. That’s why, as an interning quality control technician, he found himself in his boss’s office asking questions three or four times a day.

“He was a master deflector,” Thomas says. “I swear he never answered a question.”

The young worker was baffled. Wasn’t his manager supposed to provide him with direction? Frustrated, Thomas finally tried a different approach. The next time he wasn’t sure what to do, he found his boss and said, “Here’s what I think the answer is.”

The lead engineer grinned.

“He stood up and hugged me and said, ‘That’s what I want to hear,'” Thomas recalls. “From then on, I got it.”

When it comes to asking for help at work, some approaches are more fruitful than others, experts say, and what you ask for matters less than the way you ask it. A straightforward, polite and thoughtful request will yield the most useful results and make the best impression.

[See: What 9 Passive-Aggressive Office Comments Really Mean.]

Ask directly and anticipate success.

Asking for help makes many people feel vulnerable, and they may hesitate to inquire out of fear of rejection. But those concerns are overblown, according to research conducted by Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University.

“Overwhelmingly, people expect to be rejected much more than they are,” Bohns says. “When someone is there asking you for help, it’s really hard to say no. There’s a lot of pressure to agree. In most cases, people will say yes.”

That’s not the only misconception about asking for assistance. Bohns’ studies show that people tend to seek help from individuals they know rather than strangers, and they’re more likely to request repeat favors from those who have helped them previously.

Yet for small, direct requests, strangers are as likely to help as acquaintances, she says, and people who have refused help in the past are more likely to acquiesce in the future.

“They probably felt guilty saying no and are more likely to say yes the next time,” Bohns explains.

Worried about asking for too much of a favor? The amount of effort involved in your request matters less than you think. What does matter is the method you use to inquire. Demurely mentioning that you’ve got a problem in hopes that someone offers to assist is the wrong way to go.

“Being completely explicit about it is more likely to get you the help you want,” Bohns says. “It’s more appreciated by the other person. There’s less ambiguity.”

And if you’re debating what method of communication to use, the answer is clear: Ask in person.

“Almost no one, especially if you’re asking people you don’t know, says yes over email,” Bohns says. Meanwhile, “face to face gets really big effects.”

[See: 7 Secret Opportunities You’re Missing at Work.]

Don’t seem helpless to your boss.

Asking directly and in person are good starting points for making office inquiries. But when seeking help from your boss, there’s more specific etiquette to consider, says Thomas, who is now managing principal at Centric Performance consulting firm.

When workers start new assignments, they should never be shy about asking to clarify what exactly managers expect from them. If they find themselves struggling as they work, most supervisors would prefer that they seek assistance instead of fail to meet expectations or deadlines.

However, bosses tend not to appreciate when employees act helpless by asking what Thomas calls a “drive-by question.”

“Managers by and large do not like when people say, ‘What do I need to do?’ or ‘How should I do this?'” Thomas explains. “They want some kind of sense that you really thought about it a bit.”

Before asking your supervisor for more information, then, make sure you’ve tried to figure it out yourself first. Then, approach your boss and say something like, “‘I have tried A, B and C. Before I try D, I’d like to get your view on it,'” Thomas suggests.

Even then, be prepared for your boss to answer your questions with a question of her own about your process or ideas. If you do succeed in getting the information you need, commit it to memory.

“If you ask the same question more than once about the same project or assignment, that would irritate more managers than not,” Thomas says. “The best way to show you’re learning is to not keep asking the same question.”

Perhaps your workload feels overwhelming, and you’d like to request help with your responsibilities.

Schedule a meeting with your boss and explain the specifics of your situation, pointing out your deadlines and why you think you may not meet them, Thomas says. Then ask, “Can you help me prioritize which of these things are the most important? If one had to be delayed, which would you prefer?” Be prepared for your manager to ask whether you’re using your work time as efficiently as possible.

In this kind of conversation, it’s a mistake to compare your workload with those of your co-workers, Thomas says: “Don’t make this about anybody but you and the expectations your boss has for you.”

[See: 10 Jobs That Offer Millennials Good Work-Life Balance.]

Make progress with your peers.

Sometimes, the person whose help you seek is a co-worker, not a supervisor. Maybe your report could benefit from an extra editor or you need access to data collected by someone in a different department.

Recalling Bohns’ research should reduce any worry you have about rejection. But you may still harbor concerns about leaving a bad impression by asking for help.

Years ago, psychologists tested a theory suggested by a story Ben Franklin famously told about converting an enemy into a friend. According to Franklin’s autobiography, the Founding Father once asked a political adversary whether he could borrow a book. The rival obliged. After Franklin returned the book with a note of thanks, the adversary’s behavior changed entirely, and the two became good friends.

The psychology study yielded similar results. In the experiment, subjects won money for completing a task. Some got to keep the money, while the department secretary later asked other participants to return the funds. The researcher himself told a third set that he had used his own money and was now running low, then asked the subjects to do him a favor by returning the funds to him. The participants who provided the “personal” favor ended up liking the researcher more than members of the other two subsets.

Related research on asking for advice found that subjects who gave people advice ended up viewing them more positively.

“When we ask for help and advice, the assumption by the other person is, ‘I’m smart, and this person must be pretty smart to know that I can help them,'” Bohns says. “We like feeling effective and we like feeling helpful.”

So if you handle your request to your co-worker correctly, you may boost your standing and make an office ally while also accomplishing your goals.

“It actually makes us look good,” Bohns says.

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