Asking For Help: 7 Actionable Ways to Encourage Help-Seeking at Your Work and School

3

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.

 

Sources:

 

 

My Misadventures as a Server: How Failure and Embarrassment Builds Trust

IMG_4620

My Misadventures as a Server: How Failure and Embarrassment Builds Trust

I’ve had my fair share of face-down failures. Abject embarrassment. Moments of complete humiliation that have had the power to reduce me to itty-bitty versions of myself. It’s safe to say that at one time or another, we all have.

Take, for instance, that one summer, between teaching jobs, when I decided to try my hand at serving. When I first applied, I had casually chosen a local pub that concerned itself less with service, efficiency, and quality than a ‘good-enough’ attitude, low standards and fun times. In other words, it was a sure thing that I’d get hired despite my inexperience.

I loved connecting with patrons and the families who came through our doors. That aspect was, for the most part, meaningful and rewarding. Every day was a new opportunity to glimpse through a tiny keyhole into someone else’s existence, good, bad, and complicated. It was thrilling!

Intriguing as it was, I was truly the worst server. A good friend had reassured me during the application process that as a teacher, being so used to multi-tasking, I’d do great. Well…

I’d make a connection with a four-top, then get so busy thinking about their lives and motivations that I’d routinely forget the cream for their coffee orders and the lime for their ciders. I would ring in the appies with the entrees so everything would roll out all at once, crowding the tiny tables after a painfully long wait due to the exceedingly slow pace of the kitchen. I’d get flustered when we were short-staffed and had too many tables. I had (and continue to have) the worst short-term memory when it comes to seemingly trivial stuff.  My most commonly uttered phrases include: “Where’s my purse?” and “Where are my keys?” As you might imagine, it was a long summer.

One night during the dinner rush, a raucous group of baseball lovers settled into the back booth and ordered hot-wings with bleu cheese dressing.

Let me preface this by clearly stating that I don’t really ‘do’ wings.  I’ve never ordered them. Even when my husband hasordered them, I’ve never really paid attention (too busy focusing on other things, remember?).  So, this was a real, face-down Amelia Bedelia moment.

After getting their drinks (and actually nailing it), I keyed in their order and went to the kitchen to confirm that they got the order right on their end.

“Don’t forget the bleu cheese dressing!” I announced confidently through the kitchen window. “They want it on their wings.”

“Like, wings tossed in bleu cheese?” One of the cooks shouted with a look of utter bewilderment.

“Yep!” I yelled assuredly above the clanging of pots and hissing of steam from the dishwasher.

“Oooooo-kay…” The cook nodded slowly with a skeptical side-glance.

Minutes later, my table’s order was up.

There, sitting under the warming lights, was the most unappealing pile of wings. The bright-red hot-sauce competed with the creamy, lumpy bleu cheese sauce resulting in a chunky, greasy white and red lumpy mess. Shrugging, (I mean, people want what they want…who am I to judge?), I brought the order to the booth and presented it to them, gingerly.

The guys looked distastefully at the plate of wings, then back at me with incredulous distain. Rolling his eyes with annoyance, one of them spoke up, his voice dripping with scorn: “We meant bleu cheese. On. The. Side. Obviously.’

Obviously.

Crap. Crap. Crap.

In that moment, I wanted to disappear. I wanted to cry. I felt stupid. I wanted to reach across the table and smack the entitled look right off of their faces. I felt a desperate need to relieve myself from the negative self-talk that echoed their expressions.

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

They sneered as I grasped the plate of wings and turned to leave. Beaming the shiniest ‘service’ smile I could muster, I made my way back to the kitchen struggling to keep my head above the suffocating waves of humiliation.

Upon reaching the slippery white tile floor of the kitchen, my heel managed to hit a greasy spot. My foot scooted out from under me, sending me flying (think: cartoon character slipping on a banana peel). I fell flat on my back, but not before the goopy, creamy wings soared off the plate in slow-motion, sprinkler-style across the kitchen and all over my lap.

There I sat, drenched in hot-sauce, clumpy, creamy dressing, and failure. It took all I had not to rip my apron off and quit from the embarrassment.

But I didn’t. With a dejected sigh, I collected myself, wiped up the mess as best as I could, chose a new apron, and asked for a rush order on hot-wings, making sure to prepare the side-sauce myself.

I headed out once again to the booth, head held high, knowing in my heart that this would pass. This would not be my story forever.

In the past, reliving public displays of imperfection would have caused me to cringe. Pushing those memories far from my mind felt better than marinating in the torturous discomfort of my inadequacy. Seeking to be perfect once protected me from exposing my vulnerability, the very thing that we all seek in order to feel connected to others.

I’ve recently learned that the more willingly one leans into our own human imperfection, the less we invite shame and humiliation to manifest themselves in our lives and the more connected we feel to those around us.

You see, shame only survives within the protective shadows. The more we live out loud, in the light, the more unshackled we become. We can grow to be more tolerant of our own shortcomings. This tolerance, allows us to survive failure. Instead of wilting and shriveling, we grow strong and tall in the face of adversity.

But our courage to experience life as it is also has the remarkable power to influence those around us. It comes down, once again, to vulnerability.

It turns out, scientists at a number of universities have proven that sharing our embarrassing and vulnerable moments can serve to solidify our relationships through the agency of trust.

“Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It’s part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life,” said UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, a coauthor of the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Moderate levels of embarrassment are signs of virtue,” said Matthew Feinberg, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley. “Our data suggests embarrassment is a good thing, not something you should fight.”

It’s a great equalizer that reminds us of our humanity. There’s something about offering oneself up that allows others to feel more comfortable.

When people work and learn in an environment that celebrates uniqueness, failure, and imperfection, they are more willing to be creative, take risks, be generous, and reveal their most authentic selves.

Why is this important? Well, when you are in a position of influence, such as a teacher, a manager or the owner of a company, and you want to get the best out of those around you …because it’s your job to motivate, inspire or cajole them into creating something, being brave enough to share their idea, or to collaborate generously with one another, you have to start with trust.

When students or employees can see themselves in you, they tend to trust you. Through that shared experience, they can trust you.

So, maybe next time you need your students or employees to get creative or do their best work, start with an embarrassing story.

 

Sources:
https://hbr.org/2017/10/research-for-better-brainstorming-tell-an-embarrassing-story
” Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, Dacher Keltner. Flustered and faithful: Embarrassment as a signal of prosociality.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1037/a0025403