It’s never fun to feel like you’re alone at work. Having people you can count on around you can boost your confidence and productivity, and help you get through tough dilemmas when they pop up. It is also a critical part of advancing your career and your ability to influence strategy, direction, and resources. In my work with companies of all shapes and sizes, I’ve seen the power of having allies again and again. People who have strong allies are able to get things done.
It can be a challenge, though, because acknowledging that you need someone can feel risky—perhaps from a fear of appearing weak, a concern about others taking over, worry over losing control, or simply not knowing who to ask for what. Learning how to ask for help is critically important. Here are three simple factors to keep in mind when you do:
Don’t fall into the “helper” trap
Often we make the mistake of always contributing to what others are doing and never asking others to contribute to what we’re doing. When you first walk into an office, it’s understandable to want to establish your worth by helping out where you can. It’s a great way to demonstrate who you are, get to know people, and begin to build allies. Recognize that going overboard could land you with a reputation for being the office “helper”— the person who has the time to run around getting into everyone else’s business, but who is unwilling to give others the opportunity to contribute to your work.
Instead, try to get people involved with what you are doing. Invite them in, give them the chance to help, and ask for advice. This tacit acknowledgement of their expertise and of your confidence in them will make them root for you. At the same time, it gives them a vested interest in the success of your work.
Solicit genuine input
Don’t you hate it when people ask for your input, and you can sense they don’t actually want ideas from you at all? Usually they’re just going down a list of names they know they’re supposed to ask. We call that collaborating by checkbox: They don’t really want your help.
There are clues that can alert you to when this is happening. Most obviously is the timing of the request. If I get something the day before it is due and the message says, “This is done and due tomorrow; I’d love your input,” I don’t even bother reading it. That approach certainly doesn’t make me feel allied with the person or the work. In fact, I might even wind up feeling slightly resentful.
If you really want to make an ally, ask someone to genuinely contribute to what you are doing. That might mean booking time with them for a sit-down discussion where you can ask questions, or giving them an early draft of something so there is time for them to give meaningful input. If you can, be specific about why you want their input. Do they have a particular background, way of thinking, or perspective that will be useful to you? You might be able to reference something they said in a meeting or a previous conversation. These are all ways to show you’re genuinely interested in what they have to contribute, and that you value them as an ally.
Truly value outside feedback
I remember hearing a story about a priest who stopped doing premarital counseling. As he explained it, people would come in and say they were very serious about the process. He’d ask them, “Do you believe it is possible that you will discover something that would prevent you from getting married?” And inevitably, the couple would squirm a bit, look at each other, and eventually say something like, “Well, the church is booked, the invitations have been sent, the reception is reserved…” So in other words, all the important work was already done. The marriage was going to happen, and nothing that happened in the meetings with the priest was likely to change it.
Asking someone outside of your team to participate in potentially disruptive ways can be beneficial. But if you’re not going to take their input seriously, you shouldn’t waste their time. Be clear about how you will use their feedback, and follow up with them about what you did as a result of their help. When people see that you take their support seriously, they will freely give more of it and be an ally to you in more than just individual projects.
There’s an old proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Learning how to effectively ask people to participate in what you are doing is a great way to create an even power dynamic—people know they can count on you, and you can count on them. Start today and build the allies you need to go the whole distance.