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The first time I reached a point of crisis, I let myself get overwhelmed. Everyone kept asking me for more, and I never said no, never asked for help, and never admitted I had no idea which way to turn. So, I got fired.
Looking back, I could have averted that crisis if I had known it was okay to ask for help. Crisis happens to everyone. We can all think of a time when we had no idea how to move forward, left or right. The pandemic put the world into a state of crisis, but a crisis can also be small; it can be real or even imagined. The experience puts us into a state of inaction, frightened to a standstill. That is a crisis point.
In life and business, most of us confront many mini-crises along the way. But I have found that rather than a sign of weakness, asking for help is an opportunity for growth.
Watch others in crisis and learn
Working remotely during the pandemic gave me the opportunity to learn how to work on my business rather than in it. I would watch other people in crisis, but at my level within the company, I would not actually see their crisis until they had arrived at the point at which they should have asked for help — but did not. I then took the opportunity to either provide support or direct it as needed to the individual, the department, or the situation. But watching others have those moments also allowed me to look closer at my own world.
During my recovery from COVID-19, I observed others in crisis from one step even further removed. That distance allowed me to see I needed to be more aware of needing to ask for help before it affects the work of others. It became clear that in a crisis, we first need to get to safety before we can solve the problem. Whenever we feel physically or emotionally unsafe, or even unsafe in our professional opportunities, we should step back from the situation and find a safe way to start over.
Finding this safe way often means asking for help, but for many people, it can feel uncomfortable saying, “I don’t know what to do.” Instead, I advise people to admit, “I don’t know the norms in this company in terms of how this is done.” Every company has a different way of doing things. Using this framing allows someone to offer help without feeling like we have to minimize our intellect or skill.
Asking for help deepens relationships
We cannot go into every task assuming someone will always look out for us, but there will inevitably be times when we need support from those who will. When we do find ourselves needing help, first, think about who we have let down in the process of reaching a point of overwhelm and apologize. Then, ask for help with a plan on how to fix it. This is not a model for regular use but a mechanism to deepen relationships.
My son is 25 and in his second professional position, nine months away from his MBA. When he needed to help his fiancee through a personal crisis, his company allowed him to work remotely, but he found it difficult to keep up with his work. When he returned to the office, he was overwhelmed, telling me, “There’s so much to do, and I don’t know where to start!”
Firstly, I thanked him for reaching out. Then I told him to go to his boss for help, rather than trying to do this on his own, armed with a proposal of how he would use that help to move forward. Within 48 hours, everything was back under control. His boss even apologized because, as he put it, “My job was to have your back while you were gone, and I missed some things as well.” What could have been the start of a professional downfall for my son turned into a bonding experience.
Of course, in a toxic culture, asking for help might not work, and it may be better to remove ourselves from that environment. Asking for help is not a 100% reliable toolkit, though it has been surprisingly reliable in de-escalating conflicts. When in an argument with someone, saying, “I need your help,” shows I am looking up to them rather than being at odds with them, cooling the other person’s frustrations. Without that emotion, everyone can think more clearly and move on from conflict with healthier relationships.
Reaching out gives people power
My grandchildren are both approaching two years old and learning to talk. They know what they want — water or a bottle — but often find it out of reach. It turns out “help” is one of the first words a two-year-old will learn. The help of others gives them power. In the same way, asking for help in the workplace empowers us with our colleagues’ collective knowledge and expertise.
Whether a crisis is professional or personal, talking it through with others who have gone through it previously can help. After I got divorced, I first hid it from the company, and while I had partners who had my back professionally, I eventually reached a personal crisis point. Only when I asked for help from someone who had gone through divorce previously did I have a better chance of being more effective.
People can be afraid to ask for help, so if we see an individual going through a crisis we have gone through before, we should reach out and offer that support. Asking for help fosters a culture of support and psychological safety where everyone feels valued and capable of achieving their goals, leading to greater success for the individual, the team, and the organization. In a constantly evolving world, the ability to ask for help has gone from a useful skill to a necessary tool for navigating the modern workplace.