9 December 2021 (updated: 29 August 2022) by
Anna Elwart Anna Elwart
A big part of any manager's responsibilities is to support your team. But asking for help might be tricky for some. How to support someone who has a hard time asking for it?
While working in a team, it's not always easy to keep up. There’s a lot of things going on and they are all happening fast. Even in a very transparent organization, it’s not possible for everyone to know how much is currently on your plate. Also, the requirements for getting something done don’t always match your skillset. And finally, things outside of your job can make it harder to focus at work sometimes.
Open communication is key - this (however true) statement has been said on repeat by experts, speakers, managers, CEOs, etc. We are encouraged to talk about the challenges we are facing, the shortcomings of our team, the anxiety and reservation we may have for changes. But how to fight the shame and the “lose face” type of fears creeping on you from within?
Some elements of this fight are internal - it is this internal voice in our head telling us “if they see I don’t know how to do this, they will think I’m underqualified” (the question remains: “But will they really think less of you?”).
Some factors of this thinking, however, are external. And it’s the manager's role to create a safe space for you to work in and progress. We make mistakes, we learn, we improve. And if we do it together, others can learn from it.
Some people might have difficulties with asking for help because of internal factors or bad experiences in the past. We asked our managers and seniors about their point of view and experience on how to “help someone who doesn't ask for support”. Some people do prefer to deal with things on their own, but others might need a little nudge to actually take a helping hand.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to force your help like it’s your grandmas’ spaghetti - too good to say no to. And asking straightforward questions might not always be the way to go.
So how to approach people who might be struggling, but have a hard time admitting it?
The magic of a simple “how are you?”
“Chatting with people works well for me. Sometimes random questions like 'how are you?' can lead the person to spurt out something that they cannot cope with” said Ula Kowalska, EL Passion’s Tech Lead.
Don’t get discouraged by the evasive “I’m fine” (they can really be fine), but also: don’t try to get to the bottom of things in every conversation. If they are not willing to talk straight away, take a moment to reach out from time to time and let them know you’re there for them in case they need you.
Extend your understanding of the context
Sometimes when things are weird, you just feel which trees you should be poking at to shake up some extra context. From there you can have a better understanding of what is going on. Piotr Zawada, Project Lead at EL Passion, says that “it is worth knowing the category of the problem - is it a problem in the project, with someone from the team/company or maybe something personal? Then, react and talk appropriately, depending on the category”.
Put the cat among the pigeons
Something smells fishy? Don’t let it rot! Although Tomasz Czarnik, EL Passion’s Head of Business Development, noted that it depends on the context, in his opinion, it is always worth asking directly. “If I see that someone is struggling, I can readily assume there is a problem that needs to be handled. I try to ask about the situation and offer a hand.”
Don’t assume. Just don’t
People can manage different workloads. Some are happy to be busy, others easily fall out of balance. And it changes with time. For some, a recurring task is boring and brings them down, while others see the same task as a way to excel or just a normal part of what they do. Your perspective of a task can be very different from what your teammate might see.
Michał Warda, EL Passion’s CTO, thinks that “If someone doesn't ask for support, it doesn't mean they have too little work. It doesn’t mean they have the right amount nor that they have too much. Every person is different, so just be very mindful of this and ask a lot of questions. Pay attention when assigning tasks to a person to figure out if they already have enough or too much on their plate.” Sometimes there are no specific problems to be solved, just too many things at the same time.
Don’t make them lose their face
It’s not easy to admit in front of others that you might be a bit behind or didn’t understand something while others seemed to get it instantly. Create a smaller crowd to make it easier to share everyone’s shortcomings.
“Just today I had a situation where one of our team members had some doubts about the next steps but didn't voice them out loud. I read it a bit from emotions, so I couldn’t be 100% sure, but I took the initiative and wrote, 'Hey, do you have any questions about this? During the meeting, it looked like you wanted to ask about it, but someone interrupted you.' It turned out that there was indeed a need for a short conversation. Within a few minutes, we were back on track” shared Jakub Dziedzic, Senior Product Designer.
Don't build a cult of infallibility around you
It’s not about helping one person this one time when you were lucky to see the need for it. It’s about creating a culture where you are all growing and learning, and none of you know all the answers. And that is actually a good thing because it makes everyone stronger, more confident and it makes you all a better team.
“I think that it is also worth setting an example yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask less experienced people for their opinion and therefore, make every perspective important and acknowledged. As a next step, it’s important to show the help was useful, and how it was useful. Thanks to this practice, you send a clear message: asking for help is okay, everyone does it, no matter their seniority”, concludes Jakub Dziedzic, Senior Product Designer. Building a somewhat cult of infallibility as a Senior or a manager, you may unconsciously make it more difficult for your team members to ask for help.
Don’t forget to “just” listen
And finally, my two cents. In my experience, most people, when in a pickle, actually have most of the answers already, but they have to say it out loud or even hear others paraphrase it for it to actually hit home.
It may seem like you are extremely helpful when you’re communicating your thoughts and experiences, especially if you've been in a similar scenario before, but wait until you’re asked to do so. Listening, or even offering your quiet company with a cup of tea in the office can often be just enough.
Summary - as usual, it depends
There are different managerial styles and different communication needs, so it’s no surprise that context is king. What’s important is to create the culture of asking for help and feedback, so people, no matter their seniority or time spent at the company, perceive asking as a natural thing to do, and not as a dreaded fight for survival inside their heads.