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It’s Real: The Fear of Asking for Help

Your manager finally trusts you to lead the big project. That joyful feeling of confirmation is soon interrupted by the queasy reality that you don’t exactly know how to complete all aspects of the job. Obviously, you need to ask for some help, right?

According to most people, the answer would be:  absolutely not!

They would feel embarrassed to admit they didn’t have all the answers. That might make them look weak. Or give the impression that the confidence they’ve been projecting is only a façade. And besides, they should be able to figure it out for themselves.

If those comments resonate, you may also suffer from FOAFH:  Fear of Asking for Help.

Don’t panic; it’s a common condition. But here’s the good news… Unless you fabricated your resume or exaggerated your past accomplishments, you really have nothing to fear. Asking for help is normal. Managers expect a learning curve, especially when you are in a new job or position.

So how can you move past that feeling? Here are 10 things you need to know about asking for help.

  1. Not asking for help could send the wrong message. If the boss assigns you a very difficult task, she may wonder why you aren’t seeking input from others and collaborating with the team. If she thinks you’re struggling by yourself, that could be a sign of low self-awareness or immaturity.

  2. Analyze the options. Get initial ideas and input from others about how to solve a problem. Then test those ideas. Research them for validity in your particular environment or situation. When you approach your boss with the findings, present your analysis. “Option A and B will work. Option C will work if we bump up the budget by 20%, but the results will likely be better.” Once you’ve presented your ideas, you can ask for feedback and additional options. You might even “delegate up” by asking your boss to pitch the winning option to peers and senior executives.

  3. Be specific. Don’t ask for help in a generic way or dump piles of research on the boss’ desk. Be prepared with the facts, and do the thinking yourself. Then ask for assistance in a very targeted manner. “I analyzed the numbers and reviewed them with Tony. Now I’d like your suggestion on how to sell this concept to the marketing team.”

  4. Get to the point. When you do ask your boss for help, keep it simple. Skip the long stories and unnecessary tangents. Condense and streamline. If more details are needed, your boss will ask for them.

  5. Turn to a mentor first. If you really have no idea how to move forward, resist the urge to immediately ask your boss. Instead, get some wisdom and perspective from a mentor or trusted colleague. Someone who genuinely cares about you (and knows the politics of the organization) can guide you in thinking through the options and help you to develop a game plan. This experience will be valuable when you have to tackle tough problems in the future. Don’t have a mentor? Make that a priority.

  6. Check your alignment. If you’re struggling with how to implement an initiative, don’t automatically assume the problem is your lack of knowledge. Take a step back. Is the assigned task not in alignment with the goals of your organization? If you detect a mismatch, it’s critical to ask questions that will uncover the true purpose. Very delicately and tactfully, of course. But sometimes asking for clarification helps to position you as an insightful leader with the confidence to speak up.

  7. Call for back-up. When you need to make a tough decision, try to get buy-in from the ultimate authority. “I’m moving forward with a risky sales strategy, but I really think it will work. I need your support on this decision.” Getting that high-level support is a real confidence-booster as you move forward. And if things don’t go as planned, you know there’s someone at the top already in your corner.

  8. Handle the personal conflicts. If you are having relationship issues with a co-worker or employee, make every effort to face the problem and deal with it one-on-one. Before you involve the boss, try some conflict resolution techniques. It’s your job to learn how to interact positively with people who think differently than you do.

  9. Stop avoiding. Pretending that you don’t need help won’t make the issue go away. Neither will procrastinating and vowing to get help “soon” if you can’t figure it out. Ask for the support you need before you are facing a catastrophe. Like missing critical deadlines that delay the entire product launch. Or ignoring your worsening credit card debt until it’s a full-blown financial crisis.

  10. Change the context. If reaching out for support still feels uncomfortable, change the way you define it. Instead of “asking for help,” think of it as strategic data-gathering. Collecting input. Clarifying. Collaborating. Getting confirmation. You’re completing an important and necessary part of the project by exploring all of the options. Yes, it’s basically a shift in semantics. But it might be a great first step in helping you get over your fear of asking for help.

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