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Asking for help: strength or weakness?

I recently presented on a webinar on diversity for the Association for Project Management. The webinar was a joint event between the Women in Project Management, and the Enabling Change SIGs. I talked about how diverse the human race is as a result of genetic mutation and adaptation to geography and environment; about how we construct our version of “normal” in the groups, organisations and societies we create; and about the resulting conscious and unconscious bias we exhibit towards those who are not the same as we are (my first degree in Anthropology has a lot to answer for!). I also talked about gender diversity, which continues to hit the headlines from the number of women on boards to parity in pay.  But for project and programme professionals diversity relates strongly to teams, to clients and to end users. Diversity in this context focuses predominantly on bringing together a disparate group of individuals with different backgrounds and perspectives, thinking styles, specialisms, experience, cultures and ethnicities across geographic boundaries, and then ensuring these gel together well and fast to provide a high-performing team.  

I was asked “why women need more help” than men.  An interesting, if not provocative, question.  

I pointed out that gender is a very obvious and visible diversity trait, and asked whether he (for it was a ‘he’) could identify specific times or events when he had noticed that women need more help than men under the same circumstances; what kind of help he thought women needed; and which women specifically required help. I mentioned that much of the research into gender differences highlights that women are more social and collaborative than men: was it possible that what he perceived as "needing help" was actually something else?

And later I thought further on the question: why do we ask for help at all?  We all need help at various times: we ask for help, advice and guidance in our professional lives from those who have the experience we need to benefit from, and from those we trust and admire. For some of the project and programme practitioners I coach, it can be because they want to increase their performance to get that next promotion; equally it can be because they have been promoted and are struggling with a new role and responsibilities so need some direction and reassurance.   

The most obvious reason for asking for help is the knowledge we cannot do whatever we need to do alone and look to the experience, knowledge and skill from others.  It’s about learning from the best, about inviting input into areas you know you need to build on.  

But we also ask for help for other reasons, some of them to do with building relationships and collaborating. Asking for help, advice or guidance from a more experienced and organisationally intelligent colleague flatters, appeals to their sense of authority and starts conversations. Experienced project and programme professionals choose to ask for help when they don’t actually need it because it is also a deliberate and calculated move with the purpose of building a relationship and fostering a sense of reciprocity, so interdependency and co-operation. It’s also about appealing to another’s sense of altruism to help an individual, the team and the project. And as such, it is a useful strategy for re-engaging interest from a project sponsor who has let their commitment to the project dwindle, or for dealing with recalcitrant or difficult project team members and stakeholders.   

So is asking for help a strength or a weakness?  What are your own experiences of asking for help, or being asked for help?”

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  1. Sarah Coleman
    Sarah Coleman 07 June 2016, 09:09 AM

    Thank you all for your comments around this blog.Andrew - it is unfortunate that negative connotations still exist around asking for help, and this often relates to power and politics in organizations ("I have knowledge that I don't choose to share, so that makes me more important than you";"you've been promoted into this position so of course you can do the job in its entirely from the first day"; "I've got here by learning the hard way so why shouldn't you?").  Fortunately most people understand the reaIities and are agreeable to providing advice, support and guidance where they can.  You mention the use of language and I tend to agree that how you ask for help can also make a difference to how people respond; so, perhaps "I know you have particular experience of ..... can you talk me through how you do this so well?"Mike and Stephen - the companies you both highlight are a real revelation, and are great examples of deliberately explicit and highly supportive cultures.  I love the example of "I will always offer, ask for and accept help when needed" and deliberately ties this in with appraisals and objectives.  This lays the foundation for openness, good conversations, and for personal and organizational development.  I'm going to "pinch with pride" that example!

  2. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 04 June 2016, 11:13 AM

    I agree with Mike - only the weak and insecure find asking for help difficult. Weakness hidden behind 'ego' is a character issue.  Security / insecurity a cultural issue. But both lead to the wasting of valuable time and resources. I have no idea the environment Andrew works in but it must be very ineffectual if people are afraid to ask for the help they need to be successful. See: http://www.mosaicprojects.com.au/Mag_Articles/SA1027_The_Fear_Factor.pdf 

  3. Dr Stephen Duffield
    Dr Stephen Duffield 02 June 2016, 01:35 PM

    Sarah, A few years ago I worked for a large multinational company. As a project manager every month we had a standard deck to report on. One of the pages was related to Help Needed and you were encourage to ask for help. It was even part of our yearly performance review. Ie how much help we provided to others? The culture of the company was help needed. I tied to implement this with my follow on opportunities with some success, although the culture was not always there, i.e there was the hesitant reaction, however those that took the opportunity definitely benefited. Regards, Stephen

  4. Mike Belch
    Mike Belch 31 May 2016, 04:05 PM

    I can answer this question in two ways.My employer (Harmonic Ltd) has six simple ground rules that dictate how we interact with each other and with our clients. One of these states "I will always ask for, offer, and accept help when needed". Asking questions is a good thing and there is no such thing as a stupid question.Then there is my work as a PMO Manager. I would rather anyone ask me a question, however trivial, if the answer helps them or their programme or project to succeed.In both cases, understanding your own shortcomings and recognising that others can help you overcome them is a strong trait that should be encouraged. Similarly, when others look to you for help and advice you should never respond negatively, rather you should look on it as a compliment that they think you know the answer, and thus show yourself to be a willing respondent. 

  5. Andrew Wright
    Andrew Wright 31 May 2016, 03:58 PM

    Unfortunately, there are many words used professionally that carry overtones, and "help" is one of these, with overtones of "helpless" and neediness. Irrespective of gender, an effective project manager needs to navigate around this obstacle by moving away from terms with overtones. You mention various scenarios, and each of these needs managing specifically - PMs need the skills to recognise the right approach at the right time; risk maangement, resource management, scheduling etc, but admitting you "need help" undermines your credibility. It's normally a stress response, so very tricky indeed.

  6. Bhuvana Jayaraman
    Bhuvana Jayaraman 05 November 2017, 04:07 PM

    Sarah, i hope you will excuse me for providing my opinion too late on your blog. As it is rightly opined below, i also see that the word "help"is often over toned as helpless state and/or ignorance. In fact the cultural and work environment plays a critical role in here, along with the organisational matrix structure as for as project manager's life is concerned. With respect to the point on "why women need more help" - i believe this is just a myth. No organisation these days recruits a Woman candidate just for the fact that she is a female but only based on merits and knowledge. I think its high time we evolve all over and get over with such olden meaningless statements and beliefs that seeking help is proportional to gender. However, this belief is also linked to the social status of women in a particular country.