Asking for help can be one of the most difficult things to do in work, but not asking can do you much more harm than good.
We all like to be on top of everything at work. Being busy can be fine as long as we’re not overwhelmed or stressed, and taking on new challenges can be exciting as long as they don’t put us out of our depth.
But occasionally it will happen. You’ll be overstretched by your workload or you’ll come across a problem you’ve never faced before, or you might even make a mistake and have no idea how to fix it. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, but it’s what you do next that really matters.
Not asking for help
Whether you’ve made a mistake, missed a deadline or you’re just underperforming in general, the last thing you’ll want to do is talk to your manager about it. No one wants to come across as incompetent or not up to the job, but the first thing you need to realise is even the most successful people have made mistakes or have fallen behind, so you need to cut yourself some slack.
The second thing you need to realise is that, one way or another, your boss is going to find out. They will find out about a mistake, they will spot a drop in your performance, or they will start noticing if you miss deadlines.
As daunting as it is, it’s always better to go to your boss about this before they come to you because it shows maturity, initiative and accountability. You can’t promise mistakes will never happen again, but you can react and respond to your own mistakes in the right way.
Firstly, it’s always a good idea to assess your own situation before you panic. Evaluate why you need help, whether it’s an isolated incident, or a general overwhelmed feeling where you have too much on your plate.
You don’t want to end up going to your boss and explaining what’s happening without knowing why it has happened, because that will most likely be the first question they ask. It’s also a good way to start noticing patterns in how you work and see if there are ways for you to self-correct the problem going forward.
Don’t be a martyr
Part of why employees don’t like to ask for help is because they want to save face and prove they can handle everything by themselves.
This might mean staying in work until all hours trying to get on top of your work, which can just look like bad time management, or torturing yourself for hours trying to fix a problem when the answer is simple for someone who has seen the problem before.
Sometimes it’s good to work through a problem yourself rather than be told the answer because it’s how you gain skills and grow in your career. But you have to find the line between learning and wasting time.
Make sure you’re not avoiding asking for help because you want to prove you can handle everything. Recognise an unmanageable workload or an unsolvable problem, acknowledge the time it’s taking up and talk to your boss.
Know what you need
While spending some time evaluating exactly what your problem is and what you need help with, it’s also a good idea to identify specifically the kind of help you need. Going to your manager with a suggested solution makes it a lot easier than simply asking them to solve your problem.
Do you need more time to focus on a big project? Suggest the ways they or the team might be able to give you that time. Are you missing deadlines because part of the process is slowing you down? Come armed with suggestions about how this could be sped up.
Genuinely stumped? Don’t worry. A lot advice out there simply says ‘come with solutions, not problems’, which can discourage people from asking for help. If you can suggest possible solutions, great, but if you can’t, it’s important to ask for help anyway. If you’ve tried to think of solutions, your boss should recognise that.
Communicate the right way
Once you have all the information you need, it should feel less daunting to ask for help from your boss, but it’s important to ask the right way.
While email might be tempting to avoid an immediate face-to-face conversation, if the issue you’re having requires immediate attention or needs a solution as soon as possible, it’s always better to talk to them in person. You don’t want a question about why you didn’t tell them sooner added to the list.
However, if it’s a more general, less time-sensitive problem, an initial email might be better because it gives you the space to explain why you’re asking for help, measures you’ve put in place, suggested solutions and gives your boss the time to review it and come up with the best course of action. It also means you can still meet in person, but have already pre-emptively filled them in.
Take note of the resolution
Whether it’s a problem you didn’t know how to solve, a mistake you didn’t realise you made or you were simply overwhelmed with work and needed a bit of support and time management, it’s important to pay attention and take note of how the situation was resolved.
Employees should never be afraid to ask for help and managers should never shut employees out, refuse to help or lambast them for asking.
However, asking for help for the same problem time and time again can become very frustrating for managers, so it’s important that you start learning how to solve your own problems after you’ve asked for help the first time. That is how you will develop your own crisis management and problem-solving abilities.