Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

How organizations can build a culture of help

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Published on June 23, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

Here’s a quick game you can play alone: Draw two overlapping circles on a piece of paper. Label one circle “software marketing manager” and the other “line cook”. Then, start filling in the qualities you think a person in either of those roles should have.

There are some differences, right? A marketing manager should be a strategic thinker, show leadership skills, and understand what goes into building a great marketing campaign. And a line cook should be dependable, technically adept, and understand what goes into making the perfect hamburger.

But what goes in the overlapping space between the two circles? In other words, what are the qualities that we find universally attractive in the workplace, regardless of the role? “Independent thinker,” “problem solver,” and “proactive” are three qualities you can find listed in virtually any job description, regardless of the role. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? As an employer, you want to hire people who come across as competent self-starters—no matter what tasks they need to perform. And as employees, we all want to be seen that way by our employer.

So what happens when we get the job, ready to show off our problem-solving skills, and then encounter something we don’t know how to do? We know we have to be proactive problem solvers, but where’s the line between qualified but new, and new and clueless? 

Research suggests one thing we’re not doing is asking for help. Study after study shows that people in all sorts of roles fail to raise their hand in the workplace when they need assistance the most.

Why we don’t ask for help

Dr. Wayne E. Baker, Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research, published a book this year called All You Have to Do Is Ask. The book’s title is almost comically frank—is it really so hard to wrap our heads around the idea of asking for help, so much so that an entire book had to be written about it? The short answer, according to research, is yes.

Baker says there are two main reasons why people shy away from seeking help in the workplace. The first “very common” reason for not asking for help from others, Baker says, is that “we worry, or we fear even, that people will think we're incompetent, weak, ignorant, uneducated, or unable to do our jobs.” Psychologists like Fiona Lee have referred to this fear as the imagined “social cost” of asking for help.

It makes sense, especially for employees trying to prove their value in a new role. A good boss understands and expects each new hire to follow a learning curve. But if an employee is left to their own devices and not explicitly asked how they’re doing, they may suffer in silence out of fear of raising a flag that they were the wrong person to hire. This social cost may be experienced even more acutely by employees of marginalized identities, who have had to work harder and overcome more obstacles to get the job in the first place.

The other reason why people avoid asking for help, Baker says, is that “they figure no one can help them.” He elaborates, “I don't know how many times over the years people will take me aside and say, ‘I'm not going to ask for what I really need because I know no one here can help me.’” Not only do people assume that no one will be able to answer their question, but they also assume that no one will be willing to.

Research on organizational behavior has confirmed this assumption over the years, including this Stanford study which found that people will vastly underestimate the likelihood of others’ willingness to help them out—before they’ve even asked. Once again, this assumption can be even harder to break for marginalized workers, with many employers not checking their own blind spots or taking the time to make sure marginalized team members feel welcome and comfortable asking questions.

Regardless of the reason, when people choose not to seek help, they tend to fall back on self-reliance, “which is an important principle and a powerful motivator, but it's possible to take it too far,” says Baker. The consequences of going full steam ahead on something one is not confident about aren’t too hard to imagine—think wasted project hours, diminished morale, and dissatisfaction from both the employee and the employer.

And so we circle back to the simple directive Baker has been driving home all along: If you need help, just ask. 

Be thoughtful about how you ask

Now that we know why people aren’t asking for help at work, we can move on to the next problem: How do we break that habit?

To counteract the fear of being perceived as incompetent, Baker suggests supplying employees with guidelines for asking and being asked questions in a thoughtful way.

For the asker, being able to verify that they’re asking questions in the “right” way—that there is such a thing as a right way—can help disabuse them of the idea that they’ll come across as being bad at their job. For those asked, they’ll not only be clearer on what’s being asked of them, but also why, which will make them more inclined and able to help.

Research found people will vastly underestimate the likelihood of others’ willingness to help them out—before they’ve even asked. 

Baker developed his own set of criteria for measuring thoughtfulness, which go by the acronym SMART (and is different from the goal-setting one you may have seen before). According to this framework, the help-seeker should ensure that what they’re asking is:

Specific. You want to be as explicit as you can about what you’re asking for, because that’s what will trigger people’s memories of what and who they know. If someone understands exactly what you need, they can help you out more easily, but if they can’t, they’ll be more inclined to think of someone else who can be of assistance.

Meaningful. “This is the ‘why’ of the request,’ says Baker. “You can’t assume that people will know why—they won’t.” Giving a reason for your request gives people context and helps them understand why they should be involved.

Actionable. This means that you’re actually asking for something to be done. You may be aware of the information you’re missing, but do you know what you need other people to do in order to get that information? Presenting people with a specific action will make a favorable outcome much likelier.

Realistic, in the strategic sense. “I encourage people to make big requests, stretch requests, small requests, as long as it's real,” says Baker “It has to be within the realm of possibility.” 

Time-bound. Finally, it’s important that you put a timeline on anything you’re asking for. This will let people know how to prioritize your request. If there’s no deadline and no urgency has been communicated, people can and should add the request to the end of their to-do list.

The onus of asking for help and getting it shouldn’t fall entirely on those who need it, however. It’s important for managers to do their part by creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable and encouraged to crowd-source.

Set expectations from day one

When asked how to rid people of the urge to work alone, Baker gives an example of one of the more extreme cases of an organization doing it right: “There's an economic consulting firm I know where they're hiring PhD economists—people who are super smart and very self-reliant. But when they hire a new person, they tell them, ‘We don't want you working on a problem by yourself for more than 20 minutes without asking someone for help and input or a brainstorm.’” 

The purpose of setting such a tight timeline on this, he says, is to “create a norm and expectation from the get-go that you're expected to reach out and to ask for help. And by doing this you can get to the answers, and get even better answers, a lot faster by pushing the collective knowledge and wisdom that exists out there.” 

Of course, not every workplace is an economic consulting firm that necessitates near-constant brainstorming. In fact, it’s hard to imagine many jobs where such frequent check-ins wouldn’t be downright disruptive to most peoples’ work days (especially as more people than ever are working from home these days, where distractions already run rampant). But the point is, committing to a culture that not only encourages, but expects employees to regularly seek counsel from their peers, is one that works.

Create a culture of generosity

A realistic alternative to the “Ask for help every 20 minutes” rule is to lay the foundation for what Baker and colleague Cheryl Baker call “a culture of generosity.” 

When they first started to study organizational behavior some 21 years ago, they thought getting people to help was going to be the problem. “That was rarely the case,” he says. “People were extraordinarily generous, but the thing everyone struggled with was coming up with something to ask for. And it's not that they didn't have needs or goals. They just really struggled with it.”

The trick for managers is to lay the groundwork by demonstrating the behavior they want to see in others. “The leader has to be a role model of the behavior they want. You can't ask other people to ask for help and to give help if you're not willing to do the same.” For some managers, this will mean facing the unrealistic expectations they place upon themselves: “You know, so many managers think that they have to be the font of all wisdom and knowledge, that they have to have all the answers, but that's not true for anyone. So they need to make requests.” 

The other piece of the puzzle is implementing practices or routines around asking for and giving help, says Baker. This involves more of an indirect approach, where the goal is to simply increase overall communication between team members, humanizing each member so that approaching one another seems less daunting.

Encourage reciprocity remotely

Here’s where we have to address the elephant in the room: How are you supposed to increase communication when most teams are working remotely for the foreseeable future? Well, we’ve had to get creative with how to continue all other aspects of office life, so why not approach communication the same way?

When asked how his research holds up in a remote environment, Baker offers an encouraging insight: “What I've seen over the last several weeks is that when everyone is working remotely, people have more needs than ever before. You know, it's lonely to work alone and you need to reach out and make human contact with other people.”

He suggests using this moment to re-invigorate your team’s efforts to connect interpersonally. “Now’s a great time to take the opportunity to humanize your team members. Everyone’s working from home, so why not have a weekly happy hour where each team member takes their turn showing off something in their home that represents them?” According to Baker, this helps to knock down social barriers and encourages casual communication—which in turn will make it easier to ask for help when the time comes. 

Ultimately, fostering an environment where communication flows and questions are being asked is a matter of culture, and one that everyone can contribute to positively. Just remember that the responsibility doesn’t sit with any one person.