Asking For Help, The Low Cost, High Value Action Your Organization Is Missing

Episode 121

September 24, 2013


The Agile Weekly Crew discuss the low cost but high value of asking for help.

Jade Meskill: Hello, welcome to another episode of the Agile weekly podcast, I’m Jade Meskill.

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.

Roy VandeWater: I’m Roy VandeWater.

Asking For Help Can Feel Silly

Jade: Roy, will you tell me what we’re talking about today?

Roy: Today we will be talking about asking for help.

Jade: Oh! Will you help me figure out the next question?

Roy: No.


Jade: Derek, will you help me with the next question?

Derek: Yes.

Jade: What’s the next question?

When Should You Ask For Help

Derek: The next question is, “When should you ask for help?”

Jade: When should you ask for help?

Roy: All the time.

Jade: All the time? You just don’t know anything?

When Shouldn’t You Ask For Help

Roy: When shouldn’t you ask for help?

Why Don’t People Ask For Help

Jade: That leads to a good question. Why don’t people ask for help? If you should do it all the time, why don’t people do it?

Roy: I think a lot of people are probably afraid to be perceived as not knowing something, as OK as that is. Obviously, there’s nobody in the world that knows everything.

Jade: Do smart people ask for help?

Derek: Sometimes.

Roy: Wise people ask for help. I don’t know about smart people.

Derek: I think there’s some cultural baggage around that. In some cultures it’s perceived as if you ask questions it means you’re dumb.

Roy: Yeah.

Jade: It’s a sign of weakness.

Roy: Yeah. I’ve talked to people where they feel they ask questions during a job interview, and they feel like the candidate Googled an answer, for example, then that is looked down upon. That is a point against the candidate, and they’ll probably not get hired.

Jade: What do you think it is?

Roy: What, Googling?

Jade: If somebody did that in front of you while you were trying to interview them?

Roy: If they don’t know the answer, and they’ve asked me and I don’t know the answer, and they don’t Google it, I would be like, “Have you not heard of this? Have you been living under a rock?”

Jade: [laughs]

Roy: If I’m hiring people, I don’t care if they know the answer themselves, I just want them to produce the product. If they rip it all off of Google, as long as it’s legal I don’t care how they get around it.

Putting Yourself In Ask for Help Debt

Derek: I think there’s some stubbornness involved, also. There’s some people who feel like “If I give you something you have to give me something in return. Therefore, if I ask you for help, then somehow I’m enslaved to you, and you could pull that card out at any time.”

Jade: So I’m in “Help debt.”

Derek: Maybe I don’t want to get into debt.

Being Forced To Help

Roy: Maybe the opposite. Because there’s also a lot of cultural baggage around being asked for help. Especially when you look at how people ask for help normally. They say, like, “Derek, please close the door.” It’s not really asking, so you don’t get to really say “No.” By me asking for help, I’m kind of socially obligating you to help me.

Derek: If I said, for example, I need one of you to volunteer to [indecipherable 03:13] this podcast, that would not be asking for help?

Jade: No, you’re kind of commanding help.

Roy: I’ve heard that called being “Volun‑told.”

Jade: Volun‑told, yeah.

Derek: My immediate reaction to that is, “Screw you, buddy! I’m not going to help you. Don’t tell me what to do.”

I know that I don’t like to ask for help. I have a hard time with it. I like to know things, and I like to learn things and figure them out. I’ll definitely Google things, I don’t have a problem with that. But maybe the more subtle or insidious things, that I’m surrounded by smart people who probably have the answer, but instead I’m going to be dumb and learn it the hard way.

Missing Trust

Roy: I wonder, too, if there is a bit of trust that’s missing. If I ask somebody for help and they provide it, now all of the sudden I have to take their help, almost, because I asked for it.

I’m not saying you actually have to, but socially it’d be really awkward if I asked Derek for help, and he gave me help and I said, “Nah, that’s not the help I’m looking for. I don’t want your help anymore.”

The Cost of Asking for Help

Jade: Yeah, I think that we think it’s this really high cost thing, too. In reality the amount of time it takes me to ask for help is the entirety of the investment, and if I get the help I gained a whole lot for the amount of time that I asked for it. But if I get a “No,” or I get help that doesn’t really apply, I’m no worse off than I was before I asked for help, except for the small amount of time I spent asking for help.

I think that we forget that. We forget that it’s a really low cost thing to do, because it takes a lot of courage to do it. It feels expensive even though it’s really cheap. I think for me, a lot of times I’ll be OK at asking for help if it’s present and in my face.

If I’m sitting here struggling with a technical problem and the two of you are sitting in the room, I’m probably pretty likely, the minute that I get blocked, to ask one of you two, because I know you’re both really bright and know technology.

But if the two of you aren’t in the room, but you’re on the end of a chat channel across the way, and I don’t have that chat channel open and I run into the exact same problem, I might fight with it for 30 minutes before I go, “Oh, wait! I could get ahold of them on IM!”

Sometimes I think presence makes it difficult too. If the people that we think are available to be helpful aren’t immediately present, we don’t think about…the barrier of typing an email and waiting 10 minutes for a response is probably still better than beating my head into the wall for 30 minutes.

Or we think that people maybe don’t know the answer. Gangplank is a really interesting place, which is a collaborative workspace that we’re in a lot, where we record this podcast. It’s not uncommon, if there’s 50, 60 people in the room, that you might pop up and say, “Hey, will somebody help me by telling me where a pair of scissors are?”

That’s really low‑cost, and the reality is somebody probably knows where those scissors are. But if I sit there and look at all 50 people, and I say, “I have no idea which one of these 50 people would know where the scissors are,” I might not ask any of them.

I think it’s getting over the barrier of, even when you don’t know who can help you, sometimes just saying, “I need help” is helpful. The person drowning that says, “I’m drowning,” generally gets a life raft. The person that doesn’t say that doesn’t get the life raft.

People Like To Help

Roy: It’s interesting, because people in general like to help. People like to receive the attention and to take advantage of knowing something that other people don’t.

I think there’s even probably a little bit of, I don’t want to say it’s malicious, but a little bit of one‑upmans. Like, “Hey, I’m helping you, because I’m able to do something that you can’t, so that gives me a little bit of self‑confidence boost,” or whatever.

In fact, I’ve even seen people help when it’s not even asked for and when it’s not wanted, just to have that either one‑upmans, or just to help out.

Derek: One of the things I find very interesting is that people do not like to ask for help, but damn, do they like to give it out, even when it’s not solicited.

Jade: [laughs]

Derek: We really like to rescue people, but we don’t like so much to ask people to help us, which is really odd to me. You think that it would be…

Roy: The other way around.

Derek: An even metering out.

Roy: Because helping people out has a way higher cost associated with it. It actually takes time.

Derek: Something in our wiring makes us want to help people. If we know that we like to help people, even when they don’t ask for it, wouldn’t we think that, when we want help, that…

Jade: People who want to help?

Derek: People would really want to help, but it’s like we’re wired the opposite way.

Creating a Culture of Asking For Help

Jade: If asking for help is cheap, and waiting too long to ask for help is very expensive, how do you create a culture of asking for help?

Derek: I think the same way you create a culture for anything you want, is you just have to model the hell out of it. I think you have to insist on it. You have to constantly be in a mode for modeling that behavior, potentially even asking for help when you don’t necessarily need it.

I think you also have to model that it’s OK to say “No,” so that you don’t create a culture where people feel obligated to help when they’ve got other priorities or other things, and that people don’t get offended when they’re told “No,” that they get a healthy dosage of what it’s like to ask for help and get it, but also ask for help and maybe not get it, or have it delayed, and that that’s OK, too.

It doesn’t mean that if I ask you for help and you say “No,” that it doesn’t mean you’ll never help me again.

Jade: Or you hate me. [laughs]

Derek: Or that you hate me, or there’s something personal, but that it just might be you’re really busy trying to do something else.

Roy: Or have no knowledge to help you.

Derek: Or I don’t have the ability to help. I think it’s just modeling that a lot. I think you have to model it a lot. I think it happens pretty quickly when you get results.

I think when you ask for help and you get help, it feels like you’re cheating. It’s almost like, “Damn, I’ve got the stables easy, but [indecipherable 09:19] smacking this sucker over and over again, and it’s getting easier and easier the more I do it.” I think that it becomes a pretty Pavlov response of, “I really like this thing, so I’m going to do it a little more often.”

Are You Asking For Help

Jade: You’re saying, if you are feeling like nobody around you is asking for help, that’s probably a good indication that you need to ask for help.

Derek: Yeah. I would say, if nobody is asking you for help, that probably means that you don’t ask anybody for help.

Roy: I’m pretty sure, though, that the quantity that I think we have a mutual understanding of, is not what most people are thinking of what we’re talking about. I’m thinking about asking for help multiple times an hour, maybe a dozen, two dozen times an hour. That’s once every few minutes. That’s not once a day or twice a day. It’s a lot.

Derek: How could you possibly need help that often?

Roy: I do a lot of complicated stuff.


Roy: I’m a very dumb person, so I do a lot of…


Some Examples of Ask For Help

Derek: Can you give me some examples of how you’re asking…

Jade: Actually, you’re a very smart person, if you’re asking for help a lot.

Derek: Can you give me some examples of how you asked for help today?

Roy: [indecipherable 10:20] multiple times, where Jade and I were pairing, and I didn’t understand something, so I asked him to explain things that were going on, I asked you guys all for help in reminding me of something that I knew I had forgotten, and I was hoping you guys would know.

Likewise, I asked for help in remembering whether or not we were going to an event tomorrow, or next week Thursday, and I think there were several other times as well. I can’t remember all of them. Those are a just the ones that come to mind.

Jade: I had to leave and you still ask me for help over IM.

Roy: I think you asked for help quite a few times too, when you were off doing some completely unrelated.

Jade: Yeah, I left all my stuff somewhere, I asked you to help me bring it back.

What Does An Organization That Asks For Help A Lot Look Like

Derek: What does an organization that asks for help a lot look like? How does it look different than an organization that doesn’t ask for help?

Roy: Noisy.

Jade: Yeah, noisy. I think it’s a place that feels good, feels high energy. I think “Ease” would be a good word. It’s really easy to be part of an organization that asks for help a lot.

Roy: You probably have a lot of trust and appreciation for the people around you, because you’re constantly getting help from them.

It’s like, “I know I don’t have to worry about this, because I know you three got my back, because I’m asking for help all the time, and you’re responding positively. I don’t have to sit there and worry that someday in the future I ask for help for the first time and you guys will say, ‘No.’”

Are People Too Isolated

Derek: Do you think maybe one of the reasons why a lot of organizations struggle with asking for help, or don’t have a culture of it, is that maybe people are isolated?

Jade: Yeah. I think just like you said, when it’s not right in your face, there is some weird psychological barrier. Even if it is pretty low and pretty cheap, if I can ask you a question right now that we’re sitting face‑to‑face, versus having to send you some sort of text message or something like that, that’s going to significantly lower my desire to ask for help for some reason, even though it’s still really easy.

I think if you’re not together, not even just physically, but if your presence is low, even virtually, it creates an enormous barrier to asking for help. I know I would feel like I’m inconveniencing someone. If I don’t know that they are present in here with me, I’m pretty sure I’m interrupting them or causing them some sort of problem.

Roy: Which is interesting, because they can then say “No.” If you’re interrupting somebody, there’s no reason they couldn’t say, “Hey, no.”

Jade: Yeah, they could certainly say “No.”

Roy: Or, “No, but try again in 10 minutes.”

Barriers Preventing Asking For Help

Derek: I see this a lot. If I’m in a cube farm, or if I’m in an area with offices, the barrier for me to get up and go to somebody, while that’s not really high, it’s a lot higher than just turning around and asking them or looking across the desk. But I think the real barrier is it really feels like I’m interrupting them.

At our house with kids, and dogs, and animals, the bathroom is the sacred place. It’s the only place nobody bothers you. I think in a lot of companies, cubicles or offices become the sacred place. I see people walk up to cube walls and knock on the cube wall like it’s a door. Like “Knock, knock, can I come in?”

Think about the barrier to that. If I want help, I literally have to knock. I have no idea what you’re doing, I have no idea if I’m really interrupting you.

If I can physically see you and I can see, “Hey, you just hung up the phone, I know you’re done with that phone call,” it’s a logical time to say, “Hey.” If you’re really busy, you’ll say, “No,” but I know you’re on the phone. Whereas I get up, I walk over, you’re on the phone, do I stand there and wait? What happens?

Jade: Yeah, that’s a really great point. That reminds me of when I was much younger, and managing my first team. I was much less wise then, and I had a private office, and nobody would ever come and talk to me.

They were making terrible decisions, and I was always mad and very unhappy with, “Why aren’t they asking me for help? I have these answers, I know how to help them, and they’re just not asking me for help.”

I remember we decided to move. I moved out of that office, I moved in with the team, and that really made such a huge difference of just being physically available to them.

That’s all the time we have for the Agile Weekly Podcast. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.

Roy: Will you help us by having a discussion with us on our Facebook page at Thanks.

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