Need Help? Just Ask?

By Molly Rose Teuke

In today’s stressful workplace, it’s second nature to feel overwhelmed with proposals, reports and various projects. Yet, we’re reluctant to ask for help. We worry that people will like us less for asking, or we don’t know our colleagues well enough to ask for help, or we’ve asked before and been turned down, and on and on.

When experts put those reasons under the microscope, it becomes clear that we’ve got it all wrong. Cornell University social scientist Vanessa Bohns and her colleagues have studied helping behavior and come away with surprising findings.

A STRANGER IN NEED

We worry people will say “no” to our request, leaving us embarrassed for asking. Yet, research shows that even strangers are more likely than not to help us. In many studies where subjects are sent out into the world to ask strangers to fill out a questionnaire, give up a subway seat or lend the use of a cellphone, people consistently underestimate how likely a stranger is to say “yes.” Further, research by Bohns and her colleagues suggests that if we’ve said “no” to one request, we are more likely, not less likely, to say “yes” to a second request.

Most of us, says Bohns, “don’t realize that the social pressure to comply with a request is very, very strong. It’s often harder for people, even bosses, to say ’no’ than ‘yes.’“

DON’T BE SHY

There are two sides to why it doesn’t pay to be shy about asking for help. First, inviting others to help us is, in some ways, an act of generosity. Helpers feel better about themselves and experience mood upswings as a result of their helping behavior.

The second reason is a bit counterintuitive. It turns out people will like us more, not less, when they agree to help us. Benjamin Franklin got it right when, back in the 18th century, he said that asking a favor was more powerful than doing a favor. He made this observation in his autobiography after borrowing a book from a rival who then became a lifelong friend: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

We humans like to be consistent in our actions and beliefs. Chalk this up to Leon Festinger’s 1957 theory of cognitive dissonance, which suggests that doing something that goes against our beliefs creates a mental discomfort. Research conducted a bit over a decade later in 1969 by Jon Jecker and David Landy supports this. When we help someone, we justify our behavior by adopting a belief (or strengthening an existing belief) that the asker is worthy. “Help seekers,” say Jecker and Landy, “may not recognize that requesting help can be a means of strengthening relationships, not straining them.”

Bohns underscores that idea in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article: “Research suggests that the best method for smoothing over a conflict with someone may not be to offer to help but to ask for help,” she says. “The target of the request is likely to comply, the justification process will follow, and feelings of positivity will start to restore the relationship.”

MAKE IT EASY ON EVERYBODY

It’s one thing to ask for help and something different to say, in essence, “Here’s my problem. Please solve it for me.” Before you ask for help, think through what you need and complete any foundational work that will make it easier for someone to step in to help you.

Also, consider how much time your helper can reasonably devote to helping you and scale your request accordingly. Be sure you’re asking the right person.

Don’t send out a mass plea for help, because everyone on your list will assume someone else is going to step up. Research by Bohns and her colleagues suggests that a face-to-face request is 34 times more effective than an email request. Yes, 34 times!

In her 2018 book “Reinforcements: How to Get the Help We Need,” Heidi Grant, lead scientist for the NeuroLeadership Institute and associate director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center, draws on neuroscience and the unfolding science of social psychology to offer some advice.

  • For starters, hoping someone will notice that you need help isn’t very effective. “Human beings are, as a rule, preoccupied by their own affairs,” says Grant. “In- attentional blindness”— being selectively focused on our own needs—is a natural survival instinct. Meet people halfway. Be explicit in your request and make it clear that you want the help.
  • Go light on the apologies. When you lead with, “I really, really hate to ask you this, but…” you simply make the other person uncomfortable. “I can’t get a lot of personal satisfaction from helping you if I know that you hated having to ask me, and that you appear to be miserable about the whole thing,” says Grant.
  • Likewise, leading with, “Can I ask you a favor?” might get someone to say “yes,” but is more likely to make the person feel trapped into saying “yes.” That can have a big impact on the degree and quality of help he or she is likely to give.
    Another no-no, says Grant, is emphasizing reciprocity, especially the “you owe me a favor” variety. It makes us feel controlled and again, isn’t likely to yield willing or whole-hearted help.
  • While Tom Sawyer capitalized handsomely on the “you’re gonna have a blast helping me” gambit, chances are your prospective helper will see through the hyperbole and feel annoyed by it. This, too, can undermine the degree and value of the help you get.
  • Don’t overdo the drama of the need. You run the risk of overwhelming the person who could help you, causing him or her to want to tune out. “If I don’t get some help with this, I could lose my job,” is more likely to scare people off than get them to pitch in willingly.

With common sense and a little personal sensitivity, asking for help can be an effective way to lighten our load when we most need it lightened. The flip side of asking, of course, is being the person in your office who is known for helping when needed. The more you say “yes” to others, the more likely others will be to happily say “yes” to you and give their all.