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Ask For Help At Work If You Need It

Early in your career, it can feel like every day is another chance (or obligation) to fight imposter syndrome and prove yourself. In the quest for workplace perfection, you can make plenty of mistakes, but you need to ditch the worry that asking for help at work is equal to looking less impressive.

It’s an understandable instinct. Asking for help — whether with a specific problem or a larger issue like stress — puts you in a vulnerable position. Will admitting that you’re struggling with something make your boss and colleagues think less of you?

But learning to ask (and how to ask) for help is actually one of the best skills you can bring to the table, and can help you avoid sacrificing your mental health while on the clock.

Needing – & Asking for – help is totally normal

Everyone needs help now and again, particularly when you’re in the early stages of your career. As someone who has hired entry-level employees, I can promise you: No one expects you to know it all!

“I started working at my job three months ago, and one of the first things they instilled in me was to ask questions,” says Theresa, 24. “Especially since I work remotely, it's even more important for me to do so since I'm not near anyone. I felt like I was being annoying in the beginning but honestly, my coworkers like that I ask. It shows that I care about my work and am willing to learn. You're better off asking because your job will assume you know everything and get annoyed later if you did anything wrong.”

At every-level, going to the experts or requesting a hand is just part of balancing your workload and working as a team. No one successful does it all by themselves, and learning to ask for help will improve your work life in a number of ways.

1. You’ll become better at your job

If you choose not to ask for help, you may be losing out on expertise that your more experienced colleagues would be more than happy to share you with you. You may actually perform the tasks — the ones you insisted on slogging through alone — worse and less efficiently than you would have if you’d gotten input from others. Like so much in life, two heads are often better than one when it comes to getting the job done.

“I love asking for help at work,” says Riley, 22. “My bosses see it as one of my strengths, not a weakness. I work in a pretty technical field, so it's better to ask for clarifications before doing something rather than messing everything up because you're confused.” And isn't it better to make sure you do something right the first time, rather than having to waste time doing it all over again?

2. You’ll show initiative

On the inside, asking for help can feel like the easy way out, but to your boss, it looks completely different. If you have a reputation as a hard worker, asking for help is a great way to prove you care about doing your job right. When you bring in the right people to keep a project on track or simply to double-check the direction you’ve chosen to take, you’ll demonstrate that you’re attentive enough to identify potential roadblocks and proactive enough to fix them.

Don’t believe me? The 2015 study Smart People Ask for (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence shows that asking for advice leads people to be perceived as more competent, not less. Win-win!

“Think of asking questions as a positive, not a negative!” advises Katherine, 24. “While you may be nervous about coming off as under-experienced, this won't be the main takeaway from your employers!" Most employers would, or should, see it as a strength that you're thinking critically about your work, and addressing your needs before attempting to take on something you're not capable of. "This ability to reflect and recognize is more valued in the workplace than you may think!” Katherine adds.

3. You’ll learn more

Asking for advice is a great way to learn from your colleagues and superiors. Sure, you may be able to figure out how to do something on your own or do a good enough job without consulting an expert, but you’ll never know what you might have done better.

Nicole, 25, remembers learning this lesson early from a math teacher who always corrected her when she called a question stupid. "From there on I always reminded myself before asking a question – obvious answer or not – that there are no stupid questions," she says. If you don't ask, you'll never know.

Plus, each time you’re lucky enough to gain insight from one of your colleagues, you can take that knowledge with you into the next task you face. Especially if you’re working from home, asking for help can be one of the most effective ways to learn from people in positions you’d like to be in one day.

4. You’ll be less likely to burn out

Feeling stressed and overworked is one of the fastest routes to burnout. Drowning in work or confronting problems you’re not sure how to solve can get overwhelming and fast, and quickly begin to impact your mental health outside of work. Luckily, reaching out is one of the fastest ways to get off that scary, lonely road.

What’s the best way to ask for help at work?

If you're just getting your feet wet asking for help at work, there are a few ways you can make it easier on yourself. The first is to start with the people you trust. "Find a few key people you can trust with your questions at first, that way you'll get more comfortable before you can ask others," suggests Kait, 23.

The next is to remember that not all requests are created equal! If you come to your boss and just ask what to do next, it may come off as unimpressive. Instead, brainstorm around the problem you're having and bring your boss a few different possible solutions. When you ask which of your possible solutions they think is the best way to go, it proves you've been thinking about your project and your problem, and shows off the work you've already put into it.

For example, you might open a technical question by explaining that you’ve looked for help online and by breaking down the solutions you’ve already tried. Long story short, people will be much more willing to help you if they know you’re not using them as a stand-in for Google!

Asking for help is about more than just solving a short-term problem. When you make thoughtful requests of your colleagues and managers, you’re setting yourself up to do better work, proving you’re a go-getter, and learning a lot along the way. Not to mention, it can make for a happier, less-stressed employee!

Studies Referenced:Brooks, A.W., Gino, F. and Schweitzer, M.E. (2015) Smart People Ask for (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence. Journal of Management Science. 
Zoë Randolph

UC Berkeley '15

Since graduating, Zoë's served as a content marketer for non-profits and tech startups. She worked remotely and traveled the world full-time with her fiancé before becoming a freelance writer and settling (at least for now) in Montréal, Quebec. She likes reading good books, learning new things, and watching Real Housewives argue on TV. You can keep up with her writing over at zoerandolph.com.
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