The Most Important Thing You Can Do to Succeed Today: Ask a Simple Question
Asking for needed help can dramatically improve performance and outcomes.
Practical tools can overcome any reluctance to seek help.
Leaders can create a culture of giving and receiving in their organizations.
Learning how to ask for help is the single most important skill you need for success, according to Michigan Ross Professor Wayne Baker.
It’s not always easy; a number of factors can discourage you from seeking help. However — as Baker explains in a new book, All You Have to Do Is Ask — it’s possible to overcome those obstacles and unlock hidden potential, both for yourself and your team.
The book takes a practical, hands-on approach, explaining tools any reader can apply. Most chapters include a list of specific actions and reflections to transfer the theories into business and everyday life. The book is enlivened with anecdotes and real-world examples that illustrate the power of the lessons, such as Ji Hye Kim’s journey from University of Michigan student to Zingerman’s partner and founder of Miss Kim restaurant in Ann Arbor.
Baker recently answered a few questions about the book and the insights behind it.
What does research tell us about the power of seeking help?
Baker: The research is clear. When you ask for help, you get the resources you need to be successful: information, advice, ideas, opportunities, referrals, and emotional support. This results in higher job performance, satisfaction, and creativity. It means less stress and aggravation.
The same is true for teams. When team members use proven tools and strategies for asking, they tap their collective knowledge, wisdom, and networks. This leads to higher team performance and profitability.
How can a network of giving and receiving get us the answers or resources we need?
Baker: No one has everything they need to be successful. We all need input from others — information, advice, ideas, support — to solve problems and accomplish our work. People are willing to help, if they are asked. If you don’t ask, they can’t read your mind to figure out what you need.
You have a network of people — people you are directly or even indirectly connected to. That network has the answers and the resources. For example, a problem you are trying to solve might have been solved elsewhere already. Instead of struggling to reinvent the wheel, asking your network will get you the solution far faster.
Why can it be so difficult to ask for help?
Baker: Blame our educational system. We’re not taught to ask for help; we’re taught to go it alone. Success is all about individual performance and rewards. The same is true in the workplace. We think we have to be self-reliant, and we worry that asking for help will make us look weak or incompetent. This needs to change.
How can we change our attitude from “asking for help is a bad idea” to “asking for help is essential to success”?
Baker: Attitudes change through education and action. There’s a lot of evidence about the benefits of asking and about common barriers; that information can correct misguided beliefs. There are many techniques you can put into action, and dozens of tools that can be used to achieve virtually any goal.
What can managers do to encourage asking for help?
Baker: First thing — as a leader, you have to be a role model of the behavior you want. You can’t expect others to ask if you don’t ask for what you need.
In performance reviews, we often consider helpfulness as an explicit performance competency. That’s important, but it’s only half of the giving-receiving equation. What about asking? Make asking an explicit competency that you evaluate and reward, and you will motivate more asking and more giving.
Here’s the big one: your compensation system. Does it reward only individual achievements? If you want more asking and giving, you need to revamp it to measure and reward group achievements as well.
Wayne Baker is the Robert P. Thome Professor of Management and Organizations and the faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He is also a professor of sociology and a faculty associate at U-M’s Institute for Social Research. He co-founded Give and Take Inc., which develop technologies based on his new book.
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