Bill Thomas knew nothing about steel mills. That’s why, as an interning quality control technician, he found himself in his boss’s office asking questions three or four times a day.
“He was a master deflector,” Thomas says. “I swear he never answered a question.”
The young worker was baffled. Wasn’t his manager supposed to provide him with direction? Frustrated, Thomas finally tried a different approach. The next time he wasn’t sure what to do, he found his boss and said, “Here’s what I think the answer is.”
The lead engineer grinned.
“He stood up and hugged me and said, ‘That’s what I want to hear,'” Thomas recalls. “From then on, I got it.”
When it comes to asking for help at work, some approaches are more fruitful than others, experts say, and what you ask for matters less than the way you ask it. A straightforward, polite and thoughtful request will yield the most useful results and make the best impression.
Ask directly and anticipate success.
Asking for help makes many people feel vulnerable, and they may hesitate to inquire out of fear of rejection. But those concerns are overblown, according to research conducted by Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University.
“Overwhelmingly, people expect to be rejected much more than they are,” Bohns says. “When someone is there asking you for help, it’s really hard to say no. There’s a lot of pressure to agree. In most cases, people will say yes.”
That’s not the only misconception about asking for assistance. Bohns’ studies show that people tend to seek help from individuals they know rather than strangers, and they’re more likely to request repeat favors from those who have helped them previously.
Yet for small, direct requests, strangers are as likely to help as acquaintances, she says, and people who have refused help in the past are more likely to acquiesce in the future.
“They probably felt guilty saying no and are more likely to say yes the next time,” Bohns explains.
Worried about asking for too much of a favor? The amount of effort involved in your request matters less than you think. What does matter is the method you use to inquire. Demurely mentioning that you’ve got a problem in hopes that someone offers to assist is the wrong way to go.
“Being completely explicit about it is more likely to get you the help you want,” Bohns says. “It’s more appreciated by the other person. There’s less ambiguity.”
And if you’re debating what method of communication to use, the answer is clear: Ask in person.
“Almost no one, especially if you’re asking people you don’t know, says yes over email,” Bohns says. Meanwhile, “face to face gets really big effects.”
Don’t seem helpless to your boss.
Asking directly and in person are good starting points for making office inquiries. But when seeking help from your boss, there’s more specific etiquette to consider, says Thomas, who is now managing principal at Centric Performance consulting firm.
When workers start new assignments, they should never be shy about asking to clarify what exactly managers expect from them. If they find themselves struggling as they work, most supervisors would prefer that they seek assistance instead of fail to meet expectations or deadlines.
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