Asking for Help

Someone shared a story about a professional who was feeling constantly judged and evaluated.  The person experienced loneliness and the need to display competence always.  This resulted in many negative assumptions about the person’s professional network and a need to never ask for help.  The not asking for help went on for years and led to tragic outcomes.

My friend, Wayne Baker, studies the concept of asking for help.  He writes, “There are real reasons why asking for help is hard.  Sometimes we’re reluctant to ask for help because we want to appear self-reliant or knowledgeable, and we’re worried we’ll seem incompetent if we admit we need help.  Sometimes the barrier is a false belief about other people — that they won’t be willing or able to help us.  Sometimes we just don’t know who to ask or what to ask for, which can slow us down even when real help exists in our network.”

I like the paragraph above.  In life one must move from dependence to independence.  At the second stage many people become stuck.  They never move to productive interdependence.  This can explain why we do not ask for help.  Yet it is the last sentence that most captures my interest.  At work people who do not ask for help never discover that real help is available.  They make false, negative assumptions about reality and thus pay high costs.

Gretchen Spritzer and I once did a study about success myths, informal theories that drive how we behave.  We found four myths, two of which were prominent.

The most dominant orbits around the notion of individual achievement.  People who hold this theory believe that success comes by taking charge, providing direction, overcoming barriers and achieving goals. They feel fulfilled when they have accomplished their goals and have received recognition.  Life is about getting things done and being rewarded for it.  This myth has an ego base and it gives rise to professional survival but may lead to personal collapse.

The second myth or theory is seen less frequently.  It tends to come from deep learning and personal transformation.  The theory is acquired as we leave the pursuit of intense personal achievement.  In acquiring the second perspective, people seek to serve others, to help others find their own vision, to facilitate participation and trust.  The actors are internally-directed and other-focused team builders.  As the collective process unfolds, they stay open to feedback and new alternatives.  They learn with others.  They seek to develop the dynamic whole where people are helping and learning from each other.

Asking for help may be an act of learning that is far more important than we realize.  It may be an act of learning that eventually leads us to a new theory of success.



  • When do you ask or not ask for help?
  • At work, what are the norms about asking for help?
  • What is your theory of success?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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