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Help Wanted: How to Ask for Support

Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

April 04,2019

Years ago, before I became CMO at State Street, I was a member of our public relations team working out the communications strategy around an acquisition.

Because I was still learning the complex financial services terms, I was struggling with some key technical details and it impacted my ability to produce effective messaging.

My initial impulse was to power through on my own and hope for the best. But given the importance of this deal to the company, I knew things could go awry if I took that path. Instead, I stopped agonizing, swallowed my pride and asked for help.

Asking for help may seem like a risky proposition. People may be reticent to ask for assistance because they worry that their colleagues are too busy to lend a hand ... and will resent them for asking in the first place. But more likely, they fear that by asking a question, they'll betray their own lack of knowledge. This can be especially true as you move up in an organization and are expected to know more, simply by virtue of your title.

For everyone harboring such concerns (including myself, circa 15 years ago), here's a piece of advice: Get over it.

The face-saving you think you're doing by withholding your questions probably isn't working. In fact, your colleagues are likely to read your questions as a sign of intellectual curiosity, not incompetence. And in a world where diversity of thought has become a corporate virtue, trying to give off the impression that one person — you — has all the answers is a foolhardy endeavor. When you seek guidance from others, your colleagues will likely appreciate that you're actively working to incorporate others' viewpoints and insights into your final product. In some cases, it can also provide the opportunity to break the ice with people you don't work with often.

But there is a bit of an art to asking for help. If you're careless in the way you ask, you risk alienating others. You are, after all, adding yet another item to someone's possibly overflowing plate, so it's critical to be considerate. How do you do that? For starters, be precise in your request. “Can I get your feedback on this?” may be among the most dreaded asks, especially when it’s accompanied by, say, an 80-page draft report. However inadvertently, you’re telegraphing to your colleague that you’d like her to fill in any and all blanks she finds. That's asking too much. Instead, focus on a specific item or two that you really need guidance on, whether it’s a question about strategy or a new product that you’re not quite sure how to describe.

If possible, do your best to approach them well ahead of your deadline. Asking an urgent favor of a colleague who has their own time-sensitive matters isn’t a great way to ingratiate yourself with that person. Last but not least, avoid making your request over email— particularly if your request is a complicated one. Chatting about your ask in real time is typically more efficient than exchanging dozens of emails, and it relays your gratitude for their support in a more genuine way. If you're in a position of authority, an emailed "request" for help can come across more like an order. Talking over the phone or face-to-face helps clarify that you really are asking for a favor and that you're genuinely grateful for the support.

Stressing common goals is also important. When I was developing the communications strategy around that acquisition years ago, I made it clear to my colleagues that a successful communications approach would benefit them too. We needed to have a solid partnership so we could effectively share our story.

Those who helped me included senior managers who didn't raise an eyebrow over the fact that someone else in a relatively high-ranking position needed extra support to get her job done. That came as a great relief, but was also a sign that we as a company are doing something right. As workplace researchers Mark C. Bolino and Phillip S. Thompson note in the Harvard Business Review, it benefits a business when leaders "show their own willingness to help and be helped."[1] Their employees, Bolino and Thompson write, "are more likely to see the merits of citizenship behaviors when they observe their leaders engaging in such behaviors themselves."

These days, I'm quicker to ask for help when I need it and quick to help others as well — which brings me to my final point. Perhaps the best way to ensure that you'll get the assistance you need is by being helpful to your coworkers. It's not a one-way street. If someone is doing you a favor, you should be prepared to return it.

1. Bolino, M. C., & Thompson, P. S. (2018, June 14). Why We Don't Let Coworkers Help Us, Even When We Need It. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/03/why-we-dont-let-coworkers-help-us-even-when-we-need-it?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hbr

 

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Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

Hannah Grove is our chief marketing officer. She focuses on engaging our stakeholders in ways that differentiate and add value. She is also on a mission to eradicate jargon. Hannah is currently listening to the "Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s" podcast and Arcangelo Corelli.