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Action Tip

How to ask for and receive help

To be a great leader, you should have all the answers and always know what’s best for your teams, right? Wrong! “Great Man” leadership ideals are going out of style, and humbler, more collaborative leadership ideals are taking their place. Along with this shift, asking for and receiving help has become a sign of managerial courage and strength. Here are tips on how to build this increasingly important leadership skill on-the-job!

1/ Recognize and accept your limits

With today’s pace of change and explosion of available information, it’s impossible for you as an individual leader to know everything and be entirely self-reliant; pretending otherwise only serves to undermine your credibility and effectiveness. Recognize your limitations and embrace your dependence on others:

  • Confront your fears: The fears that can stop from you from asking for help are numerous: fear of over-stepping boundaries; fear of appearing too needy; fear of imposing on others; fear of revealing your vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, when your fears prevent you from asking for help, it cuts you off from support when you need it the most. Perhaps even worse, as a leader, you fail to model to others that asking for helping is acceptable.
  • Help others first: If you find it difficult to ask others for help, try helping others first. You will likely find it easier to accept help once you’ve already been helpful yourself. What’s more, building a reputation for being helpful increases your chances that others will be willing to help you in return. Option B’s coauthor Adam Grant first explored the power of altruism in business and leadership in his groundbreaking 2013 book, Give and Take (See Business Digest°239).

2/ Seek advice as soon as possible

In a 2015 study, researchers from the Harvard Business School and the Wharton School found that, “advice-seeking differs from other helpseeking behaviors because you’re eliciting information for a course of action, retaining the decision-making process, and implying that the values of the advice seeker is similar to the adviser.” Don’t wait to make decisions on your own: ask others to weigh in. As soon as a setbacks or mistakes arise – before you even know what kind of help exactly you’re going to need – talk about it with your teams. Ask for advice. Reaching out to your teams right from the get-go offers numerous benefits: it will bring you together, provide you with valuable input and support, and earn everyone’s buy-in for the ultimate action plan that will be formulated moving forwards.


3/ Know what you want

A common reason for failing to ask for help or failing to receive the help that you want is lack of clarity. Be precise about exactly what kind of help you need:

  • Think about a current project and write down all of your goals for it.
  • Identify the most important goal.
  • List all of the actions and resources you need to achieve that goal, including materials and information, and voilà! A list of specific asks. To identify your longer-term asks, write a detailed description of your preferred future with concrete goals. Repeat the process outlined above.


4/ Make well-formulated requests

When you communicate requests so that they are clear and easy to understand, you make it a lot easier for people to help you, which significantly increases your chances that you’ll get what you want. Formulate SMART requests:

  • Specific
  • Meaningful (explain why you need it)
  • Action-oriented (ask for what you want to be done)
  • Real (ask for what is possible: keep your asks grounded in reality)
  • Time-bound (ask for when you need it by)


5/ Don’t prejudge what others can do for you

Don’t assume you know who and what your teams and colleagues know. Similarly, don’t assume that you know how willing or unwilling others are to help you. You can’t know what other people know or how they can help you until you ask them. If you simply ask, you’ll probably be surprised by what they have to offer – whether it’s their own help directly or what they can tap into through personal and professional networks.


6/ Build a culture of asking for help

Building a culture where it’s psychologically safe to ask for help boosts collaboration, innovation, and productivity by focusing people around common goals. Set the desired tone, norms, and practices:

  • Coach your teams to expect that they will need help from others and to ask for it.
  • Model this skill: Make asking for and giving help to others a regular part of your daily leadership.
  • Secure backing from other senior leaders: have executive team members publicly ask for help and explain how they are helping other.


Gender stereotypes

An obstacle to new leadership ideals When it comes to moving past former heroic leadership ideals towards humbler, more emotionally intelligent, open leadership that is better suited towards today’s needs for collective intelligence, collaboration, innovation, and so on, gender stereotypes represent an obstacle. According to an April 2015 study published in The Leadership Quarterly, for example, male leaders who ask for help run a greater risk of being perceived as less competent as compared to their female counterparts.



Excerpt from Business Digest N°305, April 2020

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Françoise Tollet
Published by Françoise Tollet
She spent 12 years in industry, working for Bolloré Technologies, among others. She co-founded Business Digest in 1992 and has been running the company since 1998. And she took the Internet plunge in 1996, even before coming on board as part of the BD team.