Is asking for help dangerous for women at the executive level? When it comes to how they could be perceived, it can be. To navigate this tightrope, women in senior leadership positions must be intentional about how they ask for help and manage how they’re perceived.

Managers who ask for help tend to achieve better results than those who don’t. The Great Work Study, led by the O.C. Tanner Institute, uncovered some interesting data. It found that 72% of awards go to leaders who seek help, advice, opinions, and insights from others. That includes people outside their inner circle [1].

Not asking for help when you need support also has consequences. It can lead to delayed decision-making that some may perceive as weakness. This article explores proven ways to ask for help without being perceived as weak and indecisive. Indeed, there’s real power in asking for support once you understand the why, the when, and the how to do it successfully.

Asking for Help from a Gender Perspective

From the viewpoint of gender, asking for assistance in the workplace is a 50/50 split. There appears to be no statistically significant difference in gender when it comes to asking for help at work. 

But when it comes to not asking, women fare slightly worse. It’s a continued workplace bias that often when women make mistakes it’s a mark against their competence more often than men. Research also suggests female leaders walk a more precarious line in professional perception than their male counterparts. Even so, all leaders have room to improve their reluctance to request support [2][3]. 

This bias places women in a “Double Bind” situation when it comes to requesting help in the workplace. Because women are held to a higher competency threshold than men in the same position, asking for help can be perceived as a lack of competency while not asking for help and making a mistake is also interpreted as a lack of competency. 

It creates an isolation chamber for women in leadership, a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation with male colleagues and superiors. It’s one of the reasons EWF International’s Peer Advisory forums for executive women are so successful for our members. It creates a space where women are safe to be vulnerable with their challenges and receive feedback from other women leaders who 100% understand the circumstances they’re facing. 

Some leaders find it more difficult than others to ask for help at work. There are psychological reasons behind this reluctance to seek advice and guidance.

CivicScience Poll, 2018: 41% of people ask for help at work, leaving 59% who do not [4].

asking for help, women versus men

The Psychology Behind the Difficulty in Asking for Help

Here are five recognized psychological signs of why requesting help is difficult:

  1. Leaders are hardwired to be independent-minded
  2. Asking subordinates for help is perceived as a sign of weakness
  3. Sociological fear of rejection
  4. Feeling of lost autonomy
  5. Little trust in subordinates (often at a subconscious level)

Those who get comfortable asking for help are not only more productive but happier. The first step is to become willing, and the second is to practice—that’s it.

A Sign of Weakness—Really?

Requesting someone to lend a hand is not a sign of weakness. Yet despite this fact, many managers view it that way. And the higher up the leadership ladder a person climbs, the harder it can be to let go and allow others to contribute. 

Quote: ‘To do the things you’ve always done delivers the same results every time.’

Those who ask for support when needed display more strength than weakness. Struggling alone can become too much to bear, and it’s bad for health, team morale, and productivity. Therefore, the real weakness is not to ask for help.

Strength Lies in Humility

Reaching out to your team when you need support is a sign of strength. It’s also a humbling experience, especially at the start. But you already know that most change comes about by stepping outside one’s comfort zone. So you don’t need to put this powerful tool on hold until you become completely stuck and desperate.

Fact:  The longer we wait to change, the harder it becomes to take that first step.

The best leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable, knowing the discomfort doesn’t last. They keep their mind focused on the end goal and understand the benefits.

The Psychological Emotional Level

Shifting perspectives changes how you perceive situations. And when that happens, it is the benefits rather than the detriments that dominate the thought processes. There are several positives associated with seeking help and support. Such as improved workplace relationships through transparency, trust, intimacy, and team worth.

The Power of Asking Questions and Accepting Help

Often the barriers we have to asking questions are self-created, and exist because we allow them. We can be hyper-focused on how we think our actions are received and perceived by those around us and how they will judge us. But, while these barriers are often self-constructed they’re rarely self-instructed. Often they’re learned behaviors perceived when women do ask for help. More often than not, these self-created barriers are not a failure of inner strength or self-doubt, they’re an expression of institutionalized bias being self-imposed.

A Request for Support Connects You to Your Team

The person you ask for help often feels flattered. It also humanizes you, thus engendering loyalty and support from your team. Why? Because asking others for their input makes them feel valued and reinforces the importance of their role. Best of all, you create a culture that encourages open communication.

A 2014 study came to this conclusion: businesses that foster helping cultures had better employee retention, improved customer satisfaction, and larger profits [5].

The Power of Giving

Social psychologists agree that humans are social creatures, we’re wired to help on another. It’s for selfish reasons, but in a good way, so it’s a win–win for the asker and the helper. Supporting others gives a significant boost to the helper’s self-esteem. It’s a rewarding experience because people feel valued and needed when they pool resources [6].

When It’s Appropriate to Ask for Support

When you’re feeling clueless: Ask for help when you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. It sounds obvious. Yet, too many leaders torture themselves trying to figure out the impossible before finally sending out an SOS. It doesn’t have to be this way. Try to avoid unnecessary emotional exhaustion and accept support sooner rather than later.

When overly busy: You become overwhelmed with an unrealistic workload, something that happens to the best of us. People tend to respond well to requests that support the team or department they work for.

When mistakes happen: It doesn’t matter how good someone is at their jobs; we all make mistakes. Sometimes, it can take a while to undo them. Decide who the right people are to assist you, then form a plan to rectify the issue.

When you need another opinion: There may be occasions when you’re not sure about something. These are the times to reach out and ask for input from those with expertise. Others can see things we cannot see ourselves, and that’s when two or more heads become better than one.

4 Ways How to Ask for Help and Not Look Weak

Lending a helping hand when needed makes you a respected team player and creates goodwill. It also does wonders for maintaining your competence as a hands-on leader. And when it’s time to reach out and ask for help, those in your team will be willing to reciprocate. There are also a few proven ways on how and who to ask.

#1 Don’t Apologize for what You’re About to Ask

Apologizing before you ask for support makes you look weak and vulnerable. Here are a few examples of how and how not to approach others.

Incorrect approach: I’m so sorry to bother you, but…
Incorrect approach: I hate to ask, but would you mind…
Correct approach: I’d be grateful if you could help/assist me with…            
Correct approach: I’d appreciate your opinion on…

#2 Be Specific in Your Request

Vague requests are frustrating and do little to instill confidence. Instead, be specific on where you need assistance. For example, if you’re stuck on step 3.2 of a ten-step project, let the person know that’s the part you need support/advice on. Specificity reinforces authority and knowledge and tells your colleagues you’re engaged.

#3 Stay Engaged Throughout

Stay engaged with the one who’s helping you. There are two reasons for this. One is that it makes them feel appreciated, and that’s important. The other is that you get to learn by observing and asking questions. That’s especially useful if you needed backup because you couldn’t do the thing rather than just being too busy.

#4 Ask Quietly, Praise Loudly

There’s no need to broadcast to the entire team or department when you get stuck. Instead, decide on the person or persons most suitable for what you need. It’s then okay to praise them to others for a job well done. And they’ll appreciate your gratitude, which is another often neglected leadership skill in the workplace.

Leadership Asks Dos and Don’ts

So, how do you ask for help from a position of strength? There are two parts to requesting assistance as a leader, namely, who you choose and how you ask.Here are the asking dos and don’ts to be mindful of.

Asking Do’s Asking Don’ts
 check mark Consider the most suitable person for the task
check mark Align requests to shared benefits
check mark Batch related questions together 
check mark Be specific in your request 
check mark Compliment/recognize the helper 
check mark Share the effectiveness/impact of their help
 cross mark  Don’t apologize 
cross mark  Minimize the importance 
cross mark  Offer a quid pro quo 
cross mark Use demanding language

Navigate the Tightrope by Asking for Help the Right Way

The best leaders are not afraid or too proud to ask for backup. You come across as more competent, not less, and the research is out there to prove it. People respect a self-differentiated boss who’s willing to be open, honest, and authentic. Such managers create effective cultures whereby asking and giving become workplace norms.

The Power of Help and Support with EWF International

Asking for help doesn’t always have to start and end in your inner circle. EWF’s Peer Advisory Forums for women executives offer third-party support. It’s an excellent platform for women in senior leadership positions to ask questions and gain peer advisement in a safe, confidential environment. That means without the threat of potential political ramifications within a regular workspace.

Leadership development is a continual process with no graduation. And EWF International’s Peer Advisory Forums connect you with trusted mentors, advisors, and sponsors.