4 Tips for Getting the Help You Need at Work

The support of your colleagues is closer than you think

Christina Folz By Christina Folz June 19, 2018
4 Tips for Getting the Help You Need at Work

CHICAGO—Most people feel good when they help others, but asking someone else for a hand is another story. While it's not always easy, learning how to reach out is a skill in itself—and one that's essential for HR to master in today's quickly evolving workplace.

"It is impossible in this day and age to get work done without the help of others," said researcher Heidi Grant, who delivered a Masters Series presentation today at the SHRM 2018 Annual Conference & Exposition. "That is no more true for anyone than it is for HR professionals."

Much of people's reluctance to ask for help is based on fear rather than reality. We worry that others will feel put out or that they will dislike us for making a request, but the opposite is generally true, said Grant, the chief science officer at the Neuroleadership Institute and author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You (Harvard Business Review Press, June 2018).

"The research tells us that people like you more when they help you, not less," Grant said. Assisting others has also been shown to boost people's moods, self-esteem and psychological well-being. In fact, a recent study indicates that individuals are roughly twice as likely to assist others as people believe they will be.

"One of the biggest findings from the research on helping is that we wildly underestimate how willing people are to help us," said Grant, who is also the associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School in New York City. "There's a lot more help out there than we think."

People often fail to see that because help-seekers tend to focus only on how inconvenient it will be for someone to assist them. What they don't stop to consider, Grant says, is "the cost of saying no"— that is, the discomfort and awkwardness others feel when they turn down a request.

She offered the following research-based tips for increasing the chances that people will say yes the next time you need their support.  

1. Be explicit about needing help.

Thanks to something called "the illusion of transparency," people generally assume it's obvious to others when they're in need. It isn't. At the same time you might be struggling with a box in a doorway, for example, those around you may ignore you because they're rushing to a meeting, checking their phone or simply lost in their thoughts. "The reality is that we don't attend to most of what's happening around us," Grant said. "You have to take ownership for asking explicitly for help."

2. Ask individuals, not groups.

"We see this all the time … in the workplace. When you just make an appeal to the team, nothing happens," Grant said. That's due to a phenomenon known as the "diffusion of responsibility;" research shows that, the more people you reach out to with a request, the less likely you are to get a response. "Never send a group e-mail asking for help," she said. "Ask individuals."

3. Reach out in person instead of e-mail.

Speaking of e-mail, it's best to avoid it when making a plea. "Overwhelmingly, when we ask for help or support from other people, we have a tendency to ask via e-mail," Grant said. That medium usually feels easier for help-seekers because they don't have to face the prospect of an in-person rejection. The problem, of course, is that it is also far more comfortable for the person you're asking to turn you down over e-mail.  

"People assume both methods are equally effective," Grant said. Yet in-person requests have been found to be a whopping 34 times more persuasive. One study found that it took 200 e-mails to get the same response as six personal entreaties.

4. Communicate how their support will help.

To feel good about giving, people need to perceive that the help they offer will have a real effect, Grant said. "That feeling of 'why this matters' is incredibly motivating," Grant said. Conversely, it's demotivating when people don't know where their help landed. "When reaching out to someone, be clear about the impact they will have. [Make it] something they can picture. The more concrete, the better."

That's one of the suggestions that conference attendee Delores Byrd, SHRM-SCP, will be taking back to work with her.

"I need to take responsibility for how I communicate," said Byrd, an employee relations specialist for the DC Public Library in Washington, D.C., who admitted that at times she has felt too overwhelmed to ask others for help. "If I let [my team] know what the outcome [of their assistance] will be … and that what they're doing is really important, I think they will feel a little bit more altruistic about contributing."

Evidently, Grant's advice was a big help.



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