Asking for Help Without Looking Stupid

Posted on Conversation Starter: November 6, 2009 8:24 AM

Last week, more evidence emerged in the Securities and Exchange Commission's debacle over the mishandling of the Bernie Madoff über-fraud. While the SEC failed repeatedly to uncover the greatest Ponzi scheme in our country's history ($50 billion and counting), the New York Times revealed a tale of "unseasoned people uncertain about what to do and unwilling to ask for help."

But learning how to ask for help—and how to do it right—is critical to doing your job well and setting yourself up for success.

You may be afraid of looking dumb, but to be afraid to ask for and get the help you need is inexcusable, especially when the stakes are high. Asking for help in the workplace is a good thing. In fact, asking for help the right way can show how smart you are: it demonstrates that you've got good judgment and shows that you know what you know and what you don't know. Moreover, getting help up front saves endless time, energy and resources on the back end; in the Madoff case, it could have saved billions of dollars and immeasurable heartache.

Of course, it's not just asking for help—it's asking the right way. I recently coached a young man in commercial real-estate who relayed a conversation he had with his boss about starting a new regional initiative for his firm's brokers. Several times he asked, "How should I do this?" or "How should I think about this?" I cringed every time.

Instead, think about the following strategy to get the best answer—and show how smart you are—the next time you ask for help:

1. Start your question with what you know. Do your homework first. Get enough background information to put your issue or problem in context. Give the other person an idea of what you've completed to date or what you know already and then proceed to explain what's outstanding, where or how you're struggling, or what you need help with.

2. Then, state the direction you want to take and ask for feedback, thoughts or clarification. Form an opinion on what you think the answer should be. Don't just ask, "How should I reach out to the brokers?" Instead propose a course of action and get your boss's feedback: "I'm thinking of sending out a mass email to the brokers but I'm not sure if that's the most effective format...what do you think of that approach?"

3. If you don't know the direction to take, ask for tangible guidance. Instead of asking "What should I do?" ask specifically for the tools you'll need to make that decision yourself, such as a recent example of a similar analysis or a template for a given task. Or, ask for a referral to someone who has worked on a similar initiative or project in the past.

In the vast majority of cases, you'll get a lot further in your career by asking the tough, smart questions. Had the SEC junior staffers pressed senior management for more guidance and help, Bernie might have been stopped long ago.

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