The Beatles had it right:

“Help! I need somebody.

Help! Not just anybody.

Help! You know I need someone, help!”

The conversation starts with: “Can I do something to help?”

And the reply is usually: “No thanks; I’ve got it.”

Sound familiar? At the office? At home? Yes, that short conversation takes place millions of times every day across this country in the workplace, in stores, in the kitchen, between co-workers, bosses and employees (both directions), spouses, and parents and their children – basically anywhere two people are interested in a particular outcome.

In the workplace, we certainly don’t expect our employees to know everything. Yet because many of them think and feel like we expect it, they’re hesitant to ask questions. And as leaders, we get frustrated with team members who wait until the last minute to ask for help – or don’t ask for help at all – and things go to hell in a handbasket.

What makes us think it’s any different for our boss? It’s not.

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

First, keep this in mind: you are not a failure because you ask for help. You fail when you need it and don’t ask for, and the consequences create a crisis. If we believe that, why is it so dammed hard to ask for help?

Easy… we all have egos.

Successful people are helpers, not helpless, right? And we think asking for help makes us look weak and undermines our credibility as a (insert self-description here). We may think that, but it’s not true! Our credibility takes a hit when it’s obvious we need help and we pretend that we don’t. Self-reliance can be both a strength and a self-limiting weakness, especially at senior levels. We develop this huge blind spot about letting someone else lighten our load.

I’d like to offer a hint on what your first clue that you need help should be: Someone says, “Can I do something to help?” They obviously see something we don’t.

Okay, I hear you. You don’t need help. All I ask is that you keep this in mind next time you get frustrated at someone who won’t ask for help.

Here’s an idea: What if we built a culture where people aren’t intimidated to ask for help by teaching them “when” and “how” to ask questions?

Let’s start with when. Here are five good times to ask for help:

  • When you don’t know – you encounter a new process, new situation, new technology, new project, etc. Again, the world doesn’t expect you to know everything.
  • When deadlines are in danger – someone else is usually depending on you to complete your part of the project or process on time; don’t disappoint them.
  • When you don’t understand what’s expected – when you accept an expectation, you own it. Sometimes you have to gain clarity about just exactly what is being asked of you.
  • When you’re curious – not in a judgmental way, but actually trying to learn why things are done in a certain way, where what you do fits into the larger effort, or when you don’t understand a decision. WARNING: watch your tone of voice when you ask.
  • When you see an opportunity to develop someone – asking your team to help when you’re overwhelmed (or when you’re not) is an opportunity for you to practice empowerment and for them to grow in the organization.

Great! We’re almost there. Now that your team knows when to ask for help, here are some tips for how to ask without sounding incompetent:

  • Make sure you need it – you want to have tried it before your boss offers a simple solution. Start the discussion with “I tried…”
  • Bring solutions, not problems – I wish I had a dollar for every time my daughters heard me say that. You don’t have to already have the answer (or you wouldn’t need to ask for help), but you need to be able to say “Here are the options I see…”
  • Be S-M-A-R-T – ask for the help you actually need, or you’ll get more help than you want. Make your request for assistance specific, meaningful, actionable, realistic and time-bound.
  • Don’t be a martyr – just because you wait until the last minute doesn’t mean it’ll only take a minute. The last thing you want to hear from your boss is “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?”

You didn’t ask for my help, but I’m not surprised. You already knew all of this. (I don’t think I’ll let my wife read this. I can already hear her rolling her eyes.)

How about you? Do you know someone who needs help?

What you do next is up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.