Why you should never stop asking for help at work
There’s a pattern I’ve observed through my time as an engineer and a manager. As someone progresses through their career, the amount they ask for help from others follows a u-curve, and takes a significant dip around the mid-level portion of their career. If left unchecked, that lack of support and collaboration can slow down their growth, cause a lot of unnecessary stress, and lower the quality of their work. This is something which then needs to be unlearned as the person continues to grow on to a more senior level.
It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen play out repeatedly, and probably one I went through myself at some point. In this post I’ll talk through the five distinct phases of this curve, what I believe is causing it, the impact that being at the bottom of the curve has, and how we can flatten the curve in order to reduce that impact. While predominantly I have looked at this through the lens of engineering, it’s something I’ve noticed and discussed with people from other disciplines, and I believe it applies far more widely - including beyond the workplace.
1. Starting out - asking lots of questions
I think this is the bit we all understand. When you’re new to something - be it a new role, or an entirely new field - you’re not expected to know how to do everything. It’s expected that you’ll ask a lot of questions, it’s part of how you learn.
When you’re new to something, you’re not expected to know how to do everything
It’s not a completely universal thing of course. The amount of help asked for will vary from person-to-person. Some will start out asking for help as soon as they encounter something unknown and will benefit from the support and encouragement to have a go first and make some mistakes along the way to help with their learning. There will also be those who feel guilty asking for help and will benefit from being reassured that it’s okay to ask for help and that the people around them are more than willing to offer it. On the whole though, it’s a widely understood concept that when you’re relatively new to something, you’ll be asking plenty of questions.
2. The first taste of independence
As you grow, you begin to feel more capable. You find yourself able to figure out tasks without needing to ask for so much help. Sure you might be slower than someone more experienced doing the work – and it may not even be the best way to do things – but nobody expects that, and you’re figuring things out on your own. You may still ask for feedback at some key points along the way to adjust what you’re doing and course correct as needed. But generally in this phase, you’re not asking as many questions as when you started out.
Unfortunately this is where the problem begins. The correlation of gaining experience and asking for help a little less can set up the false narrative that from this point forward, progress means asking for less help, and the belief that you will ask fewer questions once you “know what to do”. This can be compounded by the belief that the best way to demonstrate your competence as you progress is by showing that you can do things without asking for help at all. People will try to figure everything out on their own in order to show how capable and experienced they are.
3. Mid-career crisis
By this point you’re around the transition from mid-level to senior. If left unchecked, the false narrative that began in the previous phase has bloomed to the point where a person may be trying to demonstrate their seniority by working “autonomously” in a silo. They will be susceptible to all sorts of things like getting drawn down rabbit holes, getting stuck on a task and staying stuck, generally slowing down their rate of growth, or even overworking and burning out in an attempt to demonstrate their competence. It’s certainly not good for the individual in this phase, and it’s not good for the teams and projects they’re a part of either.
A lot of the time, they have been set up to fail in this way without knowing it
I want to be really clear here, I’m not blaming the individual who is in this phase. A lot of the time, they have been set up to fail in this way without knowing it. There might be a Career Progression Framework where you work. Maybe there’re just some rough job descriptions for the midweight and senior positions. I’d wager that somewhere in that wording, the more senior roles or levels are being described using words like “independently” and “autonomously”. The more junior roles and levels likely have wording to the effect of completing tasks “with support”, which is then removed at higher levels. Without the proper explanation, this all feeds into the false narrative that ability is demonstrated by not asking for help.
There’s also the problem of visibility, which I’ll talk about more in a later section. But generally feeding into this false narrative of senior people not asking for help is a lack of visibility or involvement in just how much senior people actually ask for help.
4. Relearning the value of asking
As you continue to grow, you’ll make it through the mid-career crisis phase, and you start asking questions again. Maybe it’s with the guidance of someone more experienced who's been through this before, or maybe it’s come from feeling more secure in your abilities and naturally regaining the confidence to ask more questions. However it begins, you eventually get to a point where you’re asking about as many questions as you did at the start - what changes is how and why you ask them. Generally speaking, more senior people don’t ask fewer questions, they ask better questions.
You’re asking about as many questions as you did at the start - what changes is how and why you ask them
Better questions can take many forms: it might be knowing the right subject matter expert to ask directly about a given problem; it might be asking a question with more context about the issue being experienced, instead of a more general “it’s not working” request for help.
Over time a more experienced person will have learned roughly how much time it’s worth spending on a given problem before asking a question - they won’t scratch their head for days in isolation over a problem someone else might have solved before, but they also will still spend some time exploring a problem in order to ask with more context if they don’t find a solution on their own. Exactly how much time is a judgement call that gets easier with experience.
A common example that I see of this is people asking in Slack something like “has anyone run into problem X before and can point me towards a solution, or should I carry on digging?”
Even more reasons to ask for help
It’s in this phase and the next that you learn there are reasons to ask for help and input from others beyond simply being stuck. There are many reasons, but I’ll go over a couple of the main ones here.
Two heads are better than one. Any idea worked on by two people will ultimately be a better idea than what either of the two people could have come up with independently. Even if a senior engineer comes up with a solution independently, they will ask for some else’s input (or help) before taking it further. Ultimately when and how will vary depending on the size of the task, but essentially this is the same reason we have code reviews on all tickets as the standard workflow in the industry. It’s not like senior engineers stop receiving code reviews because they “don’t need help anymore”.
Formulating ideas is part of the learning process and discussing them with others even more so
To generate ideas. In a group setting, if the most experienced member of the group begins by putting forward their idea, at least one of two things are going to happen. One, people will rally around that idea, mainly because of the weight of authority and confidence that comes with it. Two, the others in the group won't go through the full process of formulating their own ideas. Formulating ideas is part of the learning process and discussing them with others even more so. A more considered approach would be for the more experienced person to share their idea last, giving others a chance to think things through and discuss their ideas first. Better still they could ask a series of questions (again, asking for help and input from others) to prompt discussion and generate ideas within the group before even beginning to refine their own, knowing that the group ideation will likely come up with approaches they wouldn't have considered.
Building a shared understanding. When everyone in a team is aligned on a shared understanding of what they are doing and why, the team works far more effectively as a unit – the risk of overlap, redundancy, or misunderstanding is drastically reduced, and team members feel empowered and connected. One of the best ways to build a shared understanding within a team is to ask questions. Ask someone else to explain their understanding of things to you. Play back how you understand things to be, or what you just heard from someone, and ask if you are in alignment. Ask for rationale to be explained, even when you think it is clear, but especially when you don't - either you'll ensure that everyone is on the same page, or you'll identify something that doesn't make sense before you get any further.
5. Asking is a super power
To anyone who is in one of the earlier phases, or who doesn’t believe in senior people asking for help just as much as junior people – in an effort to correct this false narrative – the best evidence I can give is in the form of a story. While this definitely applies more broadly than just the scope of engineering, the best example I have of this final phase is a very senior engineer I know with a super power for asking for help.
The Eve Effect
I used to work with an excellent engineer, for the sake of this story, we'll call her Eve. Eve was widely respected for her abilities. If you'd have run a survey on who the best engineer in the company was, there would only be votes for Eve and one other person. That other person would have voted for Eve.
I was Eve's manager for a time. In her performance reviews there were several people who wrote things like "the best engineer I've ever worked with" or say how they simply felt reassured by having Eve on their team. While this feedback was positive and flattering, it wasn’t particularly helpful. There wasn’t any specific feedback about what Eve was actually doing so effectively. There were no tangible actions she could learn from or build on. There was even concern that it was more of a placebo effect or a self fulfilling prophecy where things went well because people thought they would once Eve joined the project. So I did some digging to ask the people who’d left such positive feedback, just what it was that Eve was doing. The number one thing they came back to me with, was asking questions.
Eve has the confidence to ask the important questions
When Eve joins a project, she asks questions. Questions about the way things are done. Questions when she doesn't understand the rationale behind something. Eve will ask someone to explain what's being done and why - what problem is it solving. She doesn't do this because she thinks something is necessarily wrong, and it's not done in a challenging way either. Eve asks because she's seeking to further her own understanding. But through this, others in the team further their own understanding, a shared confidence is built in the team, and often an assumption is revealed, that everyone else was working under, that doesn't actually make sense. The team is able to pivot, find a better or simpler solution before getting too far into the build. All this, because Eve has the confidence to ask the important questions.
Once we realised this, Eve was able to take this even further. She began asking these questions more consciously and in more situations. In the next review her feedback was even more positive. Eve is commonly regarded as one of, if not the most senior, most experienced and most competent engineers in the company. One of the key factors in that is because she asks for help and input from others more often than almost any other engineer I’ve worked with.
How can we flatten the curve?
The closer we can get this curve to a straight line the better. In reality I think there will always be a bit of a dip in the middle, but with some help we can prevent it from dipping too far.
As an individual - making a difference
If you're at the more junior end of the spectrum, you probably have the easiest part to play in all of this, and certainly the least responsibility. It is both expected and understood that you will have a lot of questions to ask. The real difficulty comes as you begin to progress to the later stages.
How can you demonstrate your growth and competence while still receiving support?
If you're in or approaching the mid-career crisis phase, then you've probably got the hardest job. The mindset shift isn’t an easy one. Hopefully this article and my story about Eve has helped a bit. My best advice for you would be to try and have an honest conversation with your boss or manager about how you can demonstrate your growth and competence while still receiving support. Agree with them or others higher up in your department what support looks like for you and how and when you might want it (this is good to do wherever you are). You may be in the unfortunate position where the higher-ups aren't aware of how they've set you up to fail. Some education might be in order. They may even be going through their own version of this curve in their role as a manager or leader. This article might be helpful to them too.
If you're in a senior position in your field, you have the most potential to be able to improve things. The biggest impact you can have is by leading by example – show that senior people still ask for help and ask lots of questions – be more Eve. Consider where you ask your questions. If you generally ask individuals directly, consider if some of those questions could be asked somewhere more visible to others – could you even ask someone more junior for help directly? Not only does this help to demonstrate that experienced people ask questions, but it also allows more people to learn from the answers. Consider the way you ask. I saw a trend for a little while of engineers asking questions on slack prefixed with things like "newbie question:" – I know it wasn't ill-intentioned but it creates a negative tone around asking questions, or furthers the narrative that asking questions is only something the less experienced people do. Remind people that there's no such thing as a silly question.
The biggest impact you can have is by leading by example
Finally, if you're in a position where you're able to influence what goes into the career progression framework or job descriptions at your workplace, consider some alternatives to words like "independent" and "autonomous" that better describe the traits of competence that you're actually looking for. I know it's not an easy task writing these, but it could help prevent some much bigger headaches down the line. At the very least talk to people and try to be clear about what you expect from them and have that same conversation to build a mutual understanding of what support means, when it's needed, and most importantly: make it clear that asking for support doesn’t demonstrate a lack of competence.
As an organisation - creating a better culture
I’d like to tell you that I have the silver bullet here, the way to turn this around across an entire company. But it’s not something I’ve managed – yet – and it’s not something that can be changed by an individual. I’ve done some extra reading on how to build a company culture that celebrates asking questions and asking for help – I’d encourage you to do the same. I’ll summarise what I’ve read as it very much aligns with what I’ve experienced and the changes I’ve tried to make.
It has to come from the top. Building a company culture that supports the behaviours you want to see requires intentional action. The best way to promote desired values and behaviours is for leadership to embody them. It’s going to require some vulnerability from leadership, and it’s likely going to feel a little uncomfortable at times – but uncomfortable is where growth and change comes from.
The best way to promote desired values and behaviours is for leadership to embody them
Actions speak louder than words. If leadership is only telling people “it’s good to ask for help”, but the people in leadership themselves work independently and never visibly ask for help – they’re sending a very mixed message. Their behaviour is contradicting what they’re saying, and sending a powerful message that the most experienced and senior people in the company don’t ask for help. Anyone wishing to demonstrate their abilities will likely look to follow leadership’s example. I emphasise the word “visibly” in this point because it’s a really important part of the equation. If one person in leadership asks another person in leadership for help behind closed doors, then the perception to the rest of the company is that it didn’t happen. This holds true for so many aspects of leadership that I could probably write a whole entire article about it. For leadership to really embody the culture they want and demonstrate this to the rest of the company, people need to see it happening.
Choose your language consciously. I’m a big fan of the power of language and what we communicate subconsciously with our choice of words. It’s a whole complicated topic, but some of it is really simple. The next time someone asks you for help, try saying something like "that's a great question" or "I'm glad you asked me that" before responding. Provide some reassurance for those who seem unsure by reminding them there’s “no such thing as a silly question” or that you’re “always happy to help”. More junior people may not even realise that helping them is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of the job for you (at least it is for me) so let them know!
There's no such thing as a silly question
Celebrate the things you want people to do more of. What do we generally celebrate or even reward at companies? Hitting deadlines, making the client happy, launching something, going “above and beyond” and probably even some less healthy behaviours. So why not celebrate the behaviours you’d like to see instead? It might feel a little strange at first, but you could reward something like a “question of the week” at work. If you think about a conference you’ve been to, there’s quite often something like a reward for the best question given out or some kind of token freebie for asking a question. They do this to encourage and reward asking questions. When, as you usually might, you celebrate someone who has helped out another team in some way – why not celebrate the person who identified and raised the need for help too? It might feel a little odd, but both of these were valuable actions that led to the success of a project. Both of them want to be encouraged, right?
The most important thing you can do is help someone else. If you look at your todo list for the day, and one of those things is helping someone – that’s your number one priority. If you get half way through your list, later in the day, and someone asks you for help – you’ve got yourself a new priority task. This isn’t about people pleasing, or selflessly putting others first, it’s just good business sense. If you aren’t currently fighting a fire (literally or figuratively) then spending time prioritising something other than someone who needs help, firstly, wastes their time while they wait but more importantly it sends the message that helping others is less important, and maybe it’s not okay to ask for help. If you find your day begins with a string of going from one person to the next answering questions and giving help, and not getting to your individual work until the afternoon – firstly kudos, you’re clearly doing something right – but the problem here isn’t that so many people need help, or that you’re prioritising helping others over you own work. This indicates a much larger cultural problem at an organisation where people believe they only have a few people they can turn to when they need help. If there were more people readily available to support, if it was more culturally acceptable to ask for help, then each person offering support would have less asked of them.
Persevere. Nothing will ever be fixed with a single webinar. The culture of a company is not going to change overnight, especially if a conflicting message had been ingrained (intentionally or not) in the previous company culture. But stick with it, be clear, consistent and demonstrate the new values and change will come.
I have written this article through the lens of “at work”, but this phenomenon applies far more broadly than that. There is a common societal misconception that asking for help is a sign of weakness. It is not. Asking for help is an act of courage and it takes great strength to do. Identifying when you might benefit from help and speaking up at the right time is a real skill. It's one I'm still working on, and I encourage you to work on it too.
Asking for help is an act of courage and it takes great strength to do
Sidenote: I asked for help from several people while working on this article. The finished product is much better for it. I consider myself to be a better writer for their input.