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WHY ARE PEOPLE HESITANT TO ASK FOR HELP?

December 6, 2022

Don't Hesitate, Just Ask!

If you have read our blogs in the past, you know that we believe that asking for help at work is essential to your success. But, have you ever wondered why asking for help is so important? There is actually a huge body of research to back our claims! In this second installment of our current blog series, we are going to dive into why you should be asking questions and what barriers often come up. 

To make the answer short and sweet, Dr. Wayne Baker, co-founder of Give and Take Inc., a Professor at the University of Michigan and the author of “All You Have To Do Is Ask”, writes that “a willingness to ask for help at work is central to a happy and productive work life (source). In fact, a reluctance to ask for help is incredibly limiting and destructive to our careers and lives.” In one of our prior blogs, Dr. Baker says that asking for help is a “practice-able” trait. Just like we exercise to build muscular strength, we need to do tons of practice to get good at asking for help. The more questions we ask at work, the more benefits we see over time, and the better we get at asking! 

Dr. Baker warns that if you are not asking questions at work, you might “miss out on a wealth of resources that could drive increased success and fulfillment, including information, insight, opinions, guidance, help, introductions, support, referrals, or money.” The bottom line is that the more questions you are asking, the more efficient you will be and the more connections you will build! (source)

More Proof For The Power of Asking

As if the personal benefit wasn’t convincing enough, when employees are open to asking questions and helping one another, the business as a whole sees major benefits too! Analyst estimates suggest that the companies in the Fortune 500 still lose a combined $31.5 billion per year from employees failing to share knowledge effectively. (source) In other words, companies can increase their bottom line by simply encouraging their employees to ask more questions! While this seems like an easy answer, there are actually quite a few barriers that keep people from asking questions frequently. 

While it is motivating to hear about the major benefits that come from asking questions at work, you may be wondering why you still feel uncomfortable reaching out for help. Rest assured, you are not alone! Keep reading for our list of the top 7 major reasons why people are reluctant to ask questions. Luckily for you, the more knowledge you have about these barriers, the easier it will be for you to overcome them! 

#1: We don’t want to look like we don’t know what we are doing

We’ve all been the “newbie” at some point in our lives. Stereotypically, when we are inexperienced or new at something, we are reluctant to ask for help because we don’t want people to “find out” that we are “clueless”. Especially at work, when you were presumably hired because of the skills you supposedly have, we don’t want to expose ourselves as inexperienced. In fact, many people are afraid to be exposed as a “fraud”, also known as “imposter syndrome”. The thinking pattern is as follows: “I can’t allow people to think that I may be a fraud - if I ask for help, people will start to think that I don’t know what I’m doing”. Similarly, Good Therapy talks about “perfectionism” being a related issue. When we are concerned about being a perfectionist, we are holding ourselves to the unrealistic standard of already knowing everything. So, with a proclivity to present ourselves as “knowing everything” PLUS a reluctance to be caught as a “fraud”, it is easy to see how someone would avoid asking questions! (source)

#2: We don’t feel that anyone will help us

When someone asks you a question at work, are you inclined to answer? We’re guessing you would say yes! This is an interesting phenomenon, in which we are scared of rejection if we ask for help, but we are more than happy to provide help to someone when they ask! So what’s going on here?

Heidi Grant, a social psychologist, says it boils down to our own failure to think about the perspective of the person we are asking for help. Instead, we are too focused on “how effortful or unpleasant the request is, how busy the person is, how annoying it’ll be for them to help me.”. While we’re thinking about this perceived burden, we’re convinced that the person is going to reject us. However, Grant points out that simultaneously, people are actually afraid to say “no” when they are asked for help. “Most human beings buy into the idea that good people are helpful, and so most people don’t like to say no to a request for help.” (source)

So, in summary - when you are afraid to ask for help, you are forgetting that people are very likely to say “yes”! In fact, you are focusing too much on your own bias, incorrectly believing that you are being a burden. 

#3: We haven’t earned the right to ask and don’t want to feel like we owe the person that helped us

Interestingly, people are often afraid of a 'social debt' if they ask for help. As Wayne Baker explains in an article in the Harvard Business Review, people are often concerned that they will have to return some huge favor in the future if they ask a question now. While research has shown that 'reciprocity' is a very strong instinct for humans, you can use it to your advantage.

Baker suggests that offering frequent help up front will actually result in more people helping you later! So rather than worry about the debt you could be in, be proactive! Become a giver within your workplace and you will definitely see the reciprocity come back around when you need help in the future.

#4: Our desire to be self-reliant

People often refrain from asking questions because they want to be seen as self-reliant. Most people view individuality and independence as highly regarded personality traits.  We look up to those that have “done it on their own, but there is a dark-side to self reliance.  tf can lead people to take on more than they can handle, cause undue stress, and lead to burnout.  Larry Freed, the CEO of Give and Take Inc., often says, “know what you know, know what you don’t know, and know when to ask for help.  Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”  When you ask for help in the workplace you are putting the problem you are solving, the task you are working on, the customer you are supporting, in front of your own ego.  That is good for the individual and great for the organization.

#5: We feel that smart people don’t ask for help

While we are often afraid to ask for help because we don’t want to “look stupid”, the opposite is actually true. There is a huge body of research that has found that in reality, people who ask the right kinds of questions are actually seen as more like-able and more intelligent! 

Professor Allison Woods Brooks, a Harvard Business School Professor, is one of those researchers helping to prove the benefits of asking for help. In essence, her research claims that “high question-askers—those that probe for information from others—are perceived as more responsive and are better liked.” In other words, her research found that people who asked more questions were actually seen as more emotionally intelligent. And, in fact, they became more emotionally intelligent from the information they gleaned by asking more questions! “Although most people do not anticipate the benefits of question-asking and do not ask enough questions, people would do well to learn that it doesn’t hurt to ask.” (source)

Still hesitant? This article from Adam Grant, co-founder of Give and Take Inc and a Professor at Wharton Business School, summarizes a variety of situations in which major mistakes could have been avoided if people had been willing to ask for help. In one famous example, Grant lays out the pitfalls of the Hubble Space Telescope. After the telescope failed to capture clear images, journalists researched what went wrong. Surprisingly, they found that the major issue was simply that the team was reluctant to ask for help! In other words, you are not alone in feeling hesitant, but the benefits of asking for help far outweigh your fears! 

Allison Brooks said it perfectly, “In sum, people may underweight the benefits of question-asking, overweight the costs, or both.” So, the reality is the direct opposite of our bias here: if you actually want to appear smart, you should be asking questions! 

#6: We don’t feel psychologically safe to ask for help

Similar to the points above, if you work in an environment that values the “figure it out yourself” mentality, you may find that you don’t feel “safe” asking questions. Imagine you are an employee at a company where no one asks for help… ever. Would you feel comfortable or safe asking questions? What if you were a new employee? It would probably feel even less safe for you to request help from coworkers. Unfortunately, as the employee you aren’t really in the position to make changes to that culture. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, cultural changes in the workplace should come from the leaders of the company. And pro-tip, leaders have to take action, not just make mandates. “While articulating a mission and changing company structures are important, it’s often a more successful approach to tackle those sorts of issues after you’ve been able to show people the change you want to see.” (source)

As an HR leader or the leader of a company, “workplace generosity and openness” is an issue that requires structural change and acceptance starting at the top. When leaders start to ask more questions, they begin to break down the barriers that exist throughout all levels of the workplace. We have all been a new employee at a company and felt unsure about asking questions, or even where to turn for help. Imagine that you are a new employee at a company where you see the CEO frequently asking questions. This “lead by example” method will make the new employee (and existing employees) feel much more comfortable reaching out when they have questions! 

#7: We don’t know who to ask

Sometimes it’s very clear who we need to ask for help. When you have questions about PTO or your benefits package, we know to look to our HR personnel for help. However, what happens when the questions aren’t so black-and-white? What if your question has to do with needing guidance in learning how to be a better customer service representative. Who would you ask?

The Reciprocity Ring and Givitas help individuals and organizations put it into practice, everyday.    The Reciprocity Ring  teaches people why and how to ask for help, and how to overcome the fear of asking. Givitas enables you to do it everyday and scale it across a larger group or organization.  Givitas also provides a safe-space for people to ask for help, and helps you be a giver and help others, in 5 minutes a day.  Providing a safe space to ask for help is important for companies - not only to support their bottom line, but to create an open, generous environment where workers are fulfilled and efficient! To learn more about how The Reciprocity Ring and Givitas can help you, schedule a demo here!

Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog series where we will continue this conversation. Now that we have addressed why people are afraid to ask for help, our next blog will dive into the consequences. How does the fear of asking for help affect minority and underrepresented groups? What happens when those groups don’t feel psychologically safe to ask for help? How can asking more questions actually propel your career forward and help you achieve your goals? How can asking for help save you time and money? How does a generous culture affect the bottom line of a business?  All of these questions and more will be answered in our next installment!

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