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Four steps to getting people to help you

The good news: humans are naturally wired to want to help each other. The bad? Asking for help makes us wildly uncomfortable. And in a time when we rely more than ever on the co-operation and support of others in work, that is a dilemma. Social psychologist Heidi Grant suggests how to overcome this

Asking for help

Humans are hotwired to avoid asking for help because we experience the social pain of rejection the same way as physical injury. We are terrible at asking for help, even when we need it most.

But in today’s increasingly collaborative workplace of hierarchy-minimised organisational structures, cross functional teams and agile project management techniques, we need to ask for help regularly. In her book, Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, senior scientist for the Neuroleadership Institute and associate director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center Dr Heidi Grant offers four strategies to get help from others when you need it.

Step One: The helper needs to notice that you might need help

We are generally preoccupied by our own affairs. We don’t attend to everything happening around us. There is just too much to take in. We therefore, first and foremost, focus on those pieces of information relevant to our own goals and so don’t always notice you may need help. Studies also show that people in negative moods are less likely to notice others’ needs, while being in a position of relative power over others has been shown to direct one’s attention towards one’s own goals. Don’t assume others realise you need assistance.

Step Two: The helper needs to believe you desire help

Sometimes people fail to offer help because of a fear of looking foolish. For example, we may worry we have misconstrued the situation and will be embarrassed if we are wrong. Or we know some people get angsty when you offer unsolicited support as they want to rise to the challenge on their own. So, if you need help you need to remove these obstacles by asking for help directly. In the workplace it’s estimated that as much as 75-90% of the help colleagues give each other is in response to direct appeals.

Step Three: The helper needs to take responsibility for helping

Studies show that when people see others that could help, they are less likely to step in themselves. The more bystanders there are, the less likely anyone actually offers help. It’s about confusion as to who, exactly, bears responsibility to help. A classic work example is asking for help via group email. So, when you are seeking support, alleviate this confusion by giving the helper a clear sense of responsibility about helping you. Take the time to ask individuals directly.

Step Four: The helper needs to be able to provide the help you need

Being busy taxes our brains. Having to think about many things at once or to work to tight deadlines shrinks our working memory, limits our attention and focuses us to take mental shortcuts. We are therefore likely to say no without thinking. If you would like help from a busy person, be explicit and detailed about what you are asking for and how much effort from the helper it will entail. Vague requests will leave people worrying that what you are asking is going to be significant and they won’t have the time and energy for it. Second, be mindful to keep requests for help to something the other person can do given other commitments. Finally, be open to receiving help that is different from what you asked for. Strengthen your relationship by taking the help that is offered.

Asking for help is not just about what you say and do but what you don’t say or do. Apologising profusely, minimising the nature of the request or reminding people they owe you a favour alienate the person you are seeking help from. When you ask for help, focus on the things that reinforce helpful behaviour: a sense of being part of a shared purpose, positive sense of identity and the ability to see the effectiveness of one’s help in action.

Dr Heidi Grant (pirctured below) is a social psychologist who researches, writes and speaks about the science of motivation. She is author of Reinforcements: How to Get People to Help You, available now from Harvard Business Review Press.

Heidi Grant

Published 5 August 2019

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