Asking for Help: 7 Actionable Ways to Encourage Help-Seeking at Your Work and School
“Help is one of those four-letter-words that is curiously difficult to say when it’s in the form of a request. Most people tell me that it’s not easy for them to ask for help. Offering to be of help, on the other hand, comes much easier to people. Helpers, after all, are not the vulnerable ones.” -Caroline Myss
Just recently, I asked someone I know for help. The act of it left me feeling a bit exposed. In asking for support, the two of us had immediately entered an unofficial contract of positional hierarchy.
This person had the authority; I did not.
This individual had the power; I did not.
This person was above and I was below.
Both of us subconsciously agreed upon our relative positions of power based on the narratives in which we subscribed.
The feeling had an uncanny resemblance to some of my past experiences at school.
By asking for help, I had momentarily removed the armour I normally wear to protect my fragile heart from pain and hurt, invited myself to become vulnerable, and had placed my pride in my helper’s hands.
Truth be told, our interaction didn’t go so well.
Instead of acknowledging the delicate responsibility that comes with assuming the powerful role of ‘helper,’ this individual took advantage of his position and wielded it clumsily, upsetting our subtle balance and betraying my vulnerability.
Like an anemone attached to the walls of a shallow ocean tide pool, poked and prodded by the oblivious and excitable children’s fingers, I recoiled and closed-up tightly.
And, it took a while for me to open up again.
Nowhere is this dynamic more common and widespread than in the classroom and many workplace cultures.
Any number of us have felt betrayed in moments of authentic vulnerability by those we love, those who lead us, and those who have taught us. I’m sure you can think back to a time someone absentmindedly or willfully employed their power to make you feel small.
It turns out approximately 85% of the people Dr. Brené Brown interviewed for her research could recall a shaming occurrence at school that was so demoralising that it made lasting, damaging impact on their perceptions of themselves as learners. She explains: “Through about fifth grade, shame is literally the threat of being unlovable. It is trauma because they are dependent. Shame is a threat to survival.”
Take a moment and observe the damaging power of the following school-based interaction, as described by Dr. Brené Brown:
“Susie is sitting in her classroom as her teacher is passing out papers. The teacher says, ‘I have one paper left. Who didn’t get a paper?’ Silence from the class. And, with more emphasis the teacher says, ‘I SAID, I have one paper left. Who didn’t get a paper?’ Susie slowly raises her hand. The teacher comes over and says, ‘I’m not surprised. Class are you surprised? Here Susie, I’ll help you out.” And, then the teacher proceeds to write on her paper where the student’s name would go: STUPID.”
Perhaps this example may feel a little extreme, by today’s standards, but I think she provides a solid example. The way teachers (or any leaders, for that matter) interact with students can have a detrimental or positive impact. It all comes down to the dependency built into the student-teacher power dynamics. Students, after all, tend to find themselves at the base of the power hierarchy. Since teachers are usually in a position of authority, it’s imperative that we tread carefully knowing that our response to a vulnerable student can have the power to confirm a damaging narrative running through his/her head. Our reaction to a struggling student has the power to belittle, shame, and reinforce his/her unworthiness. The result can be catastrophic.
On the flip side, however, teachers possess the ability to create healing and inspiring impressions on our vulnerable students. We can provide encouragement, effectively enabling a student to reject the negative thought patterns that reinforce the illusion that they’re stupid or unworthy.
It is, therefore, imperative that anyone in a defined position of influence examine his/her interactions within the context of offering and asking for help. If you’re in a position of power, as a teacher or employer, isn’t it better to generously assume that your student/employee is truly trying his/her best instead of assuming the worst?
No, they’re likely not stupid.
No, they’re likely not deliberately screwing-up.
No, they’re likely not trying out to render your day more challenging.
Yes, it’s very possible that you may have explained the very same concept a number of times, many different ways.
Can it be frustrating? Sure.
But, through leading with compassionate patience, making the most generous assumptions as you interact with those around you, it’s possible to bring the very best out of your employees, students, and children. You can foster a safe environment that values growth mindset, second chances, and asking for help. In turn, people will be more productive, more creative, and more self-assured.
Whether you’re a boss, principal, parent, teacher, spouse, or CEO of a company, I encourage you to become aware of the power you wield, being mindful of the lasting influence you may have on those you lead.
Here are 7 actionable ways that you can create an environment of respectful trust, where asking for help is encouraged and honoured:
1. The Reciprocity Ring
Dr. Adam Grant, author of Givers and Takers and Originals, encourages companies and organizations to cultivate ‘Giver’ cultures by practicing the reciprocity ring:
A group of approximately 8 people and invite everyone to go around and make a request for what they need help with. Then, challenge the group to act like Givers and fulfill each person’s request for help.
The Harvard Business Review has reported that many businesses have become more profitable and efficient as a result of this practice, either directly (problems being solved) or indirectly (removing the stigma of asking for help). Dr. Nathan Podsakoff analyzed 38 studies of organizational behavior tracked over more than 3500 business units across industries. There is a strong connection between “helping behaviors and desirable business outcomes” including: “high rates of giving predicted profitability, productivity and customer satisfaction, as well as lower turnover.”
The Reciprocity Ring encourages the group to adopt help-seeking-practices as part of its cultural norms.
2. Employ the 4 Pillars of Courage
Dr. Brené Brown suggests that we should teach courage through the development of the following 4 pillars: vulnerability, clarity of values (think a household/workplace/classroom manifesto), trust, and resiliency skills (the ability to get back up when we fall down). When we feel courageous, we are more likely to ask for the help we need because we’re not afraid of how we may be perceived as weak. Instead, we come to the realization that “vulnerability is the greatest measure of courage.”
3. Lead the Way
If the teacher, parent, CEO, principal starts by giving without the need for recompense, it’s likely that others will do the same. That kind of environment encourages a give and take attitude, where it becomes the norm to collaborate and ask for help. Generosity is not a scarce resource. More is more.
4. Inspire Clarity
Encourage your students, employees, and children to become clear and concise in their requests for help. The clearer the ask, the easier it is to deliver.
5. When there’s a problem, ask yourself who has the most power here?
According to Dr. Julia B. Colwell, “true relationship evolution happens when power dynamics are unearthed, explored, and changed.” When you get real about power inequalities, it becomes easier to solve problems and diffuse interactional conflicts.
6. Bolster your Leaders
Zingerman’s, (a company based out of Michigan) has developed a purposeful culture of helping. Every time a new managing partner is inducted, attendees of the induction event are asked, one by one, to express how he/she will contribute to the success of the new partner. This public dedication to the new leader enables him/her to more easily ask for help, leaning on the team behind them. This strategy could easily be adapted to the workplace, school, or community to encourage employee and student engagement.
How could children, students, teachers, employees contribute to making their leaders and organizations more successful?
7. Process over Product
Reinforce the importance of process over solutions and products. Everyone knows that the best learning occurs through the process of trial and error, and yet, it’s so common for us to measure student and employee success upon the finished products they create. The inquiry-based model of learning values and is founded in the understanding that teamwork, process, and learning through failure is integral to actualizing an idea, achieving a goal, and learning a new skill.