Drowning in Work? Here’s How to Ask a Colleague for Help.

June 14, 2018 Heidi Grant

jun18_14_HBR-staff
HBR Staff

Raise your hand if you have an insurmountable pile of projects on your to-do list and an inbox so terrifying to behold that you can hardly bear to behold it.

Cue the sea of arms waving wildly.

You have too much to do. You can’t do it alone. You need people to help you. Why aren’t they helping you?!?

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: If you aren’t getting the support you need with your crushing workload, odds are it’s kind of your fault.

Cue the sea of angry readers giving their screens the finger right now.

What I mean is, you probably aren’t asking for the support you actually need, and if you are, you probably aren’t asking for it in the right way. Loads of studies have found that people have an innate desire to be helpful, by and large. (This is one reason the “givers” among us tend to get overwhelmed.) But even though people are much more likely to lend us a hand than we assume, most of us can’t stand the idea of asking for help.

If you’re drowning in work right now, you need to get over that. Try the following steps:

Figure Out What You Actually Need

First, set aside time to figure out what, specifically, would really help you.

People who are drowning aren’t always at their most rational and strategic. We may neglect to ask for help because we can’t even make sense of what to ask for. And the last thing we want to do is stop and think about it — better to push ahead, alone and stressed to the point of breaking.

Just as they say you have to spend money to make money, the truth is you sometimes have to spend a little time in order to save a lot of it. So take a moment to go through everything on your plate. Identify tasks that someone could help you with that meet both of the following criteria:

  • Having someone do it for you would provide significant relief or make you substantially more effective.
  • Someone could do it for you without needing tons of supervision or explaining.

Ask for It. Very Clearly. Don’t Be Shy.

One of the most underestimated obstacles to giving help is uncertainty. No one wants to offer unwanted help — people tend to get really cranky when you do. If someone is unsure about whether you want help, how to help, or whether they can give you what you need, they aren’t going to help you.

It’s common for people who need to ask for help to be vague in how they ask for it, out of an aversion to the whole situation. Social psychologists have found, over and over, that asking for help fills us with intense discomfort — even, sometimes, a physical revulsion. And so we end up couching our request for help as a question (“Would you like to…?”) or a favor (“If you have time…”). This leads to uncertainty, which leads to inertia.

It’s up to you to take all that uncertainty away by:

  • making an explicit request for help
  • being very, very specific about what it is you want them to do, and when
  • being careful to choose someone who actually can help in the way you are asking

Accept Whatever Help You Are Offered

There are two ways in which we all tend to be overly rigid when it comes to accepting help, both of which can be self-defeating.

The first is being rigid about the type of help we are looking for. For example, I was doing research on a book and asked an acquaintance for assistance. He replied that he couldn’t spare the time himself, but he offered a different type of help: an introduction to a few colleagues who might be able to help with it instead. I ultimately got exactly what I needed from one of those colleagues. The introduction, even though it wasn’t what I asked for, was very helpful.

The second has to do with whom we ask for help. We all have a tendency to write off the people who have turned down our requests for help in the past. But the research on this one is very clear: People who have rejected your request for help in the past are actually more likely to help you the second time you ask. This comes, more often than not, from a desire to repair the relationship that might have been damaged by the rejection…and, frankly, from not wanting to look like the kind of jerk who turns someone down twice. So don’t hesitate to reach out to the people who have left you high and dry in the past — they may welcome a shot at redemption.

It’s important to respect the fact that you haven’t cornered the market on drowning in work — other people may be swamped too. This is not a reason not to ask; it’s a reason to be flexible about the help you are offered, and from whom.

Say Thank You

Really, this last step should go without saying, but you can’t take anything for granted these days. One of the most important motivators for helpers is the potential to feel effective. Studies show that when people can vividly imagine the impact their help will have — or, even better, can learn about the actual impact it had — they are more motivated to continue helping in the future. Everyone wants to see their help land. It’s up to you to make sure they do.

While these steps sound easy, I know they’re not — if they were, you wouldn’t be drowning in work in the first place. But remember, when it comes to getting the help you need, you have far better chances for success than you realize — if you’ll only ask for it.

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