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Do You Struggle to Ask for Help?

Interview with professor Wayne Baker

When it comes to getting what you need to be truly successful in your work, do you struggle to ask for help? Perhaps as you think about asking people to test a new approach you’re developing you fear they’ll say no and you’ll feel rejected. Or when you imagine asking someone to give you a hand managing a difficult customer, you worry that they’ll think you’re weak. Maybe when you consider seeking out people who might be able to offer new opportunities to develop your strengths, you feel anxious that they’ll think you’re not good enough.

Researchers have found that whilst these are common fears in workplaces, the truth is we are wired to help each other. And that in fact the toughest barrier we face in having our personal and professional needs met in workplaces, is our inability to ask for help.

“In many Western cultures we have a strong value of self-reliance and individualism that gets in the way of asking for what we need,” explained sociologist Professor Wayne Baker from the University of Michigan when I interviewed him recently. “But studies are finding that smart people and progressive workplaces have discovered that asking for help is the key to success because we need to be able to draw upon the wisdom and resources of crowds.”

Giving cultures – where people don’t simply engage in two-party reciprocity but instead create a chain of reciprocity where help is paid forward – have been found to improve productivity, promote learning, and build a climate of trust. In fact, a wealth of research demonstrates the vital role of generalized reciprocity for the health of communities and organizations, as well as for individual health and wellbeing.

“By increasing the flow of resources through networks, enabling the combination and recombination of resources, and by increasing the probability that the right resource will get to the appropriate need, reciprocity expands the capacity of an organization,” said Wayne. “It enables groups to discover new resources, solve problems faster, and save time and money.”

So how can we create more giving cultures in even the most traditional workplaces?

Wayne recommends three steps:

For example Xerox instituted a practice of 15 minute huddles, so when someone needed help they could round up the people needed and request a 15-minute huddle. Those asked to help dropped what they were doing and participated, knowing that when they needed help in the future, they too could call huddles.

However, be aware that the effects of reputation appear to be short lived. An old reputation for helpfulness gets you nothing. You have to continually renew your reputation by helping others on a regular basis.

  • Learn to ask for help – This sound obvious but most of us struggle to be clear about the help we need from others. Try to make your requests for help SMART: Specific; Meaningful (why you need it); Action-oriented (ask for something to be done); Real (authentic, not made up); and Time-bound (when you need it).

For example, Professor Adam Grant at Wharton Business School allows a few students in his class to present requests and invites the whole class to contribute. He encourages them to ask for anything meaningful in their professional or personal lives, ranging from job leads to travel tips. Drawn in by the empathy ignited by a meaningful request, students often report being surprised by how much they want to help others.

  • Run a reciprocity ring – a guided, structured process of asking for and giving help, this approach has been used in Bristol-Myers Squibb, IBM, Boeing, Citigroup, Estee Lauder, UPS, and many other organizations. Typically a group works together for about two-and-a-half hours to make requests of each other, and find ways to share connections, knowledge, ideas and resources. It is estimated the monetary value of benefits achieved for groups typically exceeds $150,000 and the time saved by participants typically exceeds 1,600 hours.

In a reciprocity ring because everyone is making a request, people’s fears about asking for help are easily overcome. Not only that, but because everyone is publicly being encouraged to behave like givers, people willingly step forward to help others - even the takers in groups have been found to give three times more than they get. You can learn more about running a reciprocity ring by clicking here or get the Give&Get app for a virtual team.

What can you do to create a more giving culture in your workplace?

This interview was produced in partnership with the Positive Business Conference held each year at the University of Michigan. For more on the conference please visit