At work, we’ve really been struggling lately with increased workload, challenges associated with partial return to working on site, and lots of policy and procedure changes. Everyone has been under the gun, and it’s been a chaotic time overall. I’ve taken the past week to focus on two things: organizing my professional responsibilities and taking care of my personal needs (hence my brief hiatus from the blogging world).
Things are finally achieving a new equilibrium (knock on wood), and that’s given me some time to reflect. One of the things I’ve been considering is the difficulty in navigating something that under normal circumstances is relatively uncomplicated: helping each other. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve all been in personal and professional situations where there’s a greater need to support others, while it’s been more difficult to do so. Everyone has limited bandwidth available, because everyone is dealing with similar issues.
This is a topic I’ve touched on before, but during these times it’s definitely worth revisiting. This week, let’s focus on what to do when you feel like you might need help, and next week we’ll take a look at the other side.
When You Should Ask
In conversations with my team at work, as well as my family, I’ve discovered that a lot of us have been reluctant to reach out to others and request assistance. We assume that everyone else is busy, equally overwhelmed, or likely to overextend themselves for our benefit. If you find yourself experiencing these feelings, ask yourself a few questions:
First, is this supposed to be a shared task? It’s easy in a crisis scenario to find yourself taking on more and more responsibilities, and sometimes everyone is so crazy you start taking on shared tasks solo because you have the bandwidth and other people don’t. And that’s a great thing to do! However, if you find you miscalculated, or something else got dropped onto your lap, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking others for help. Even if it’s as simple as “I know I said I’d cover this, but now I need to pull this data for a new report, I need help with completing it.” There’s nothing wrong with saying a task that was supposed to be shared needs to be shared again. This also applies to cases where people might not be pulling their own fair share. Sometimes, just asking is enough to bring it to their attention and get them to pick up the pace.
Second, can it get done quicker with help? One thing to keep in mind during crisis work is everyone has limited resources because there is a goal that needs to be met, usually with a timeframe attached. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help if that’ll get the job done quicker, because it benefits everyone if you do. Sure, the report isn’t due until Friday, but if your local Excel guru helps with the spreadsheet formulas Monday, you can enter the data Tuesday and have it done on Wednesday, which means the team waiting on your report could start their next task earlier. It creates a chain reaction that leads to the crisis ending sooner for everyone. So even though you’re hesitant to ask the Excel guy for help because he’s running as crazy as everyone else, if you do ask, and he can spare the time, it could lead to the entire organization suffering less.
Third, and finally, can you ask without the expectation of a yes? This is deceptively tricky. Sometimes the mere act of asking carries with it an unspoken pressure, the assumption you’ll get a yes. Even if you didn’t mean to. I’ve started using “feel free to say no” or variants on that phrase when asking for assistance, to eliminate the unspoken assumption.
When You Shouldn’t Ask
If you’re concerned about the appropriateness of a request for assistance, there are a few other things to consider:
First, can I finish the task solo without placing undue stress on myself? That undue stress part is important, because it’s okay to ask for help when you are technically capable of doing something but are lacking in mental or physical energy. However, sometimes I wanted to ask for help because I was frustrated, tired, or not thinking clearly and confusing those for stress. By taking a moment to reassess and reevaluate, I realized that what I really needed was a short break before trying again.
Second, am I asking the right person? I’m sure we’ve all been bounced between three or four people saying it’s someone else’s responsibility, and that can be very frustrating, but it’s important to take the time to try and figure out the right person to ask. I’m currently spearheading a major ongoing project, and have been very careful to send out clear organizational and contact charts. I’m also responsible for relaying information from other teams, even though I have no authority over them or role in their work product. Unfortunately, it has become very common for people to ignore the organizational chart and direct all of their questions (and criticisms) to me. In many cases, I’m the wrong person to ask, so someone is wasting their time waiting for a response from me, and placing stress on me because I want to find them the answer so they didn’t get shuffled around.
Third, do I think the person I’m asking has the bandwidth to help me? This is really challenging, because we usually don’t know exactly what’s going on with someone else. If they’ve been wrestling with other problems for thirty straight hours, you don’t want to accidentally become the proverbial last straw. So when you’re thinking of asking someone to help you out, I recommend beginning the conversation by asking how they’re doing and getting a sense of their current situation. In addition to giving you an idea about whether a help request is appropriate, questions like these are important for building and maintaining relationships. Then, if it seems like you can make the request, make sure that you’re asking without the expectation of a yes (see above).
How comfortable are you asking someone to help you out? How is your support system?