why managers are afraid to ask for help — and how they can

Ever wished you could ask for help but felt awkward about speaking up? Maybe you were afraid that you would look weak or less capable, or that it would undermine people’s confidence in you. Managers, especially, are prone to this way of thinking; when you’re the one who other people come to for help and advice, it can make you feel like you’re supposed to have all the answers … and that you’re somehow failing if you don’t.

That’s a pretty dangerous line of thinking. First, perhaps most obviously, it will keep you from getting input and assistance that will probably improve your work, and which could even keep from you from actual failure. But on top of that, refraining from asking for help when you should can actually make you look weaker.

Sound counterintuitive? People who can’t ask for help when they need it signal that they’re insecure and battling to protect their standing (often because they feel it’s precarious). People who are truly confident in their skills, abilities, and professional standing generally don’t have a problem admitting that they don’t know something; they don’t feel threatened by the admission, and that makes them look more confident and in control.

After all, think about professional contacts who you particularly respect. They probably appear comfortable asking for input when they’re unsure or are willing to baldly state when they don’t know something. That’s because being confident in your capabilities generally means that you don’t feel you need to have all the answers, nor do people expect you to.

How to Ask

The next time you’re struggling with a problem, uncertain of the right strategy on a project, try asking others (your team, your peers, or your own manager) to help. Just say something like:

  • “I’m wrestling with a situation and would love to run it by you and get your input.”
  • “I’m working on X and I’m having some trouble with Y. Can I ask you to take a look?”
  • “I’d love to learn how to do X better, and you’re great at it. Could I pick your brain about how you approach it?”

Encourage Your Team to Ask for Help Too

One side effect of getting better at asking for help yourself is that you’ll model a good example of help-seeking behavior (and humility!) for your team members. But it’s also worth explicitly pointing out to your staff the utility of seeking help, and putting deliberate effort into inculcating a culture where speaking up and asking for help is seen as smart, collaborative behavior, not a source of shame or weakness.

To do that, watch for and point out times when one staffer might seek advice from another (“Jane loves to through this kind of challenge; why don’t you talk with her and see if the conversation helps you get unstuck?”). You should also reinforce it when you see it happen (“I love that you thought to consult with Bob about this and I can see how it strengthened the product”).

Getting comfortable asking for help will strengthen your work, your reputation, and your team’s output. So the next time you’re struggling or feeling stuck … speak up!

{ 7 comments… read them below }

  1. Bloggers Unite*

    Both of my previous managers were excellent examples of this. They both most often asked their direct reports for help, obviously, but they always asked the person who was most suitable to help and always made that person feel valued. This article’s point about creating a culture of help is so, so true.

  2. Dan*

    I would not like working in an environment where my boss thought they knew everything and wouldn’t ask for help or advice. My boss is not an expert on my job, and I’m a-ok with that. To think that she could make strategic decisions without ever consulting me is… not conceivable, and setting the project up for failure.

    1. KathyGeiss*

      to me, undergoing a consultation process and asking for help are two different things and I think you need both. I think asking for help is harder because it makes you more vulnerable; you have to admit you don’t have an answer to a problem. Its easy to say “can you help me understand a, b and c of your work.” While it’s harder to say “we have this challenge and I don’t know what to do. What do you think?”

      Maybe it’s such a small difference it’s not noticeable to people but it’s an important nuance to me.

      1. Dan*

        IMHO, one asks a question because one doesn’t know the answer, which is implicitly saying “I don’t know something.”

        I admit that one gets very vulnerable if one *should* know the answer to something, or should be able to articulate a few different choices, but can’t. But to be completely lost and have no direction? That’s probably not common, and vastly different than not knowing the nuances between a few different choices.

        Good managers *should* be asking other people what they think, and that’s precisely Alison’s point.

  3. Not So NewReader*

    Keep saying it, Alison. Some of the worst work places I have been in are where the manager does not know and does not ask.

    Just for managers who don’t ask questions, please know, here is what is happening behind your back:
    Everyone is walking on tiptoe. It’s just bad form to be “smarter” than the boss.
    Everyone is copying you, they don’t ask questions, either. Problems grow exponentially.
    Productivity is low and people dread coming to work.
    People are covering your mistakes but not always in a good way.
    Some of your more radical employees are laughing at you. In your effort to look so smart, the exact opposite has happened.
    If you are experiencing frequent breakdowns in equipment and/or high employee turnover, it the culture of not asking questions, created by you, that has caused this.
    And lastly, stop glaring at people. No one is after your job. They just want you to do your job.

  4. Z*

    Up until very recently, I worked under a manager who was a far extreme case of this. He would frequently assert with confidence things that had no basis in fact. It took me a while to figure it out – for the first 6 months or so of my job I just assumed that he’d somehow been misled or made a reasonable inference that happened to be wrong (albeit suspiciously often), but no, what was happening was that when he didn’t know something, he saw absolutely no problem with just making something up and treating it as fact. The worst part is, this appeared to be confabulations rather than lies – that is to say he made shit up and convinced himself that it was fact as opposed to baseless speculation. This would even persist in the face of being told information or shown evidence that his assertions were wrong. Frankly, this was scary to witness in a grown adult, let alone a technical professional managing other technical professionals. Certainly it came across as him being so weak and unconfident in his position that he wasn’t even comfortable asking people questions, although perhaps he was just really stupid and delusional.

    Myself and my coworkers caught him doing this often enough that we began to doubt whether or not any of his other assertions were true, as fact and fiction came out of this guy’s mouth indistinguishable from each other unless you happened to have enough knowledge about what he was saying to identify the bullshit. It completely undermined his credibility, including his higher level technical knowledge – after all, none of us workers knew enough about those topics to validate what he was saying on them – but we did know enough about him to be unable to dismiss the idea that he could have been confidently asserting “facts” that weren’t true.

    What got him unmanagered in the end was the extent to which this behaviour affected his interpretation of safety rules, which are a big deal where I work, and wider company rules which came from way above his head. After a few major safety violations which came down to him failing to follow the rules and to ensure his department were following the rules, he got unceremoniously yanked out of management.

    Managers, seriously, take heed of this:

    Making things up in lieu of asking questions or doing research when the people you’re directing can’t or don’t know to fact check you is dangerous at worst and unproductive at best. Making things up when the people you’re directing CAN fact check you and in some cases know more about the situation than you do is just stupid. It will be noticed, it will absolutely destroy your credibility.

    No reasonable person will lose respect for their manager if their manager asks them for information, an opinion or help. There is great respect to be had for people who demonstrate that they are able to identify gaps in their knowledge or skills and ask questions to fix them. Managers who show that they are able to logically process information to reach conclusions and make decisions end to inspire trust in their reports, even if the decision turns out to be a poor one, where managers who make flying leaps of assumption to reach bizarre conclusions will engender distrust and disrespect. Nobody is expected to know or be able to do everything, but professionals are generally expected to have reasonable information gathering and decision making skills.

    1. variety*

      Reminds me of a teacher in college. He would talk about real world examples in the Civil Engineering class he taught. Unfortunately he did not have first hand knowledge so wasn’t always accurate. Then one day he had a student who was actually involved in one of the examples he was talking about. To avoid being embarrassed again he always asked first if anyone was familiar with the subject before he would continue.

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