How to ask for help at work: a guide for ‘doers’
In improv, we talk a lot about supporting others. How we invite others to show up for us is just as crucial.
If you’re reading this, we’re going to make an assumption: you like to do things. Maybe a little too much, even.
You might even like to do things so much that you find it difficult to ask for help. You might also find yourself doing so many things that the prospect of asking for help just seems like more work. You might be so overwhelmed with doing things that you forgot asking for help was an option in the first place.
So, for all of you ‘doers’ out there, here’s a quick, practical guide to another one of the 8 skills in our universal improvisational toolkit: constructively asking for help, even — and especially — when you’re feeling overloaded.
But first, the ‘doer’s paradox’: why is it so hard to ask for help when we need it most?
What happens when our brains are overloaded:
The Harvard Business Review notes that, typically, “our response to ever-growing workloads is to work harder and longer,” rather than to seek new, more sustainable ways to operate.
It’s not that we’re all masochists or poor strategic thinkers. It’s a neurological response. Our brains are drunk on stress.
When we have too many demands on our thinking (AKA, too many ‘brain tabs’ open) over long periods of time, we start to experience cognitive fatigue. Think of it like the “rainbow wheel of death” for your brain: we become more forgetful, less focused, and less able to problem solve on-the-fly.
Pile on the negative cognitive effects of stress hormones like cortisol over time, and it’s like pouring a beer on top of an overheated laptop; we’re probably not going to respond to that email on time. And, the longer we remain in this “overwhelmed” state, the harder it is to dig ourselves out of it.
Enter: ‘the ask’
Conventional wisdom says that when we feel overwhelmed, we need only to take a step back and ask ourselves, “what one or two things, if taken off my plate, would alleviate 80% of my stress?” But remember, we’re stress-drunk. Operating heavy machinery is ill-advised.
So, let’s pick up a shovel. Think of one small, concrete ask that would free up a little brain space. And maybe, just maybe, let you sober up enough to hop back in the “strategic backhoe” for some heavy lifting.
Let’s workshop the following request:
“Do you have any tips for how to ask for help as an ‘improvisational thinker’?”
1. Make a strong, declarative offer: As improvisers, we trust that when we take a bold step out, our teammates will join us. Leading with a statement about what you need, instead of a question communicates that you have thought the ask through and have confidence that it’s impactful and worth pitching in on.
“I’m writing about “asking for help at work” in our newsletter! Do you have bandwidth to share some tips on how to ask for help as an ‘improvisational thinker’?”
2. Be specific: The more specific your words, actions or emotions, the easier it is to build off of them. Details like timeline, concrete deliverables, and objective help contextualize the ask and make it easier for your teammate to say ‘yes and…’
“I’m writing about “asking for help at work” in tomorrow’s newsletter! Do you have bandwidth today to share 4, 1–2 sentence bullets on how to ask for help as an ‘improvisational thinker’?”
3. Don’t wait: The faster and more concisely you ask for help, the quicker you’ll get it. And the easier it is for your teammate to schedule it into their workload.
“I’m writing about “asking for help at work” in next week’s newsletter! Have time this week to share 4, 1–2 sentence bullets on how to ask for help as an ‘improv thinker’?”
4. Know your audience. Explain why you’re coming to this particular person. (Bonus: a chance to acknowledge why they’re awesome!)
“I’m writing about “asking for help at work” in next week’s newsletter! I know you were instrumental in building our applied improvisation curriculum. Have time this week to share 4, 1–2 sentence bullets on how to ask for help as an ‘improv thinker’?”
Did we get too meta here?
Maybe. But hey, we got the help we needed, didn’t we?
It may not be the “silver bullet” to all your problems, but making a strong, specific, concise ask can free you up to further problem-solve — and build trust that your teammates have your back when you need it.
(Thanks for the bullets, Sammy :) ).