“I Need Help” and Other Things We Don’t Say Enough at Work


If you’re anything like me (and I hope for your sake you aren’t but I know there are plenty of people that suffer from similar problems), then admitting that you aren’t flawless, that you aren’t a genius, that there are things you aren’t an expert in, that sometimes you aren’t the best person for the job, can be hard.

Equally, even if you aren’t a perfectionist like me, it can be just as hard to tell the obvious truth. It is something that is severely lacking in most workplaces because we are all so focused on keeping our jobs and the truth, even though it’s true, can seem like a slap in the face, both to those delivering it and those receiving it.

Acknowledging out loud the things we think to ourselves when we are struggling or frustrated or undervalued, whether in relation to schedule, ability, workload, productivity or a variety of other possibilities, takes courage. But not acknowledging them can be far more detrimental to your job and your wellbeing. So here are a few things we should say a little more often at work.

‘I need help.’

There are two contexts in which this phrase might be used. One is much harder than the other but in both scenarios not saying it could be so much worse than being humbled by admitting it.

The first context is a simple work problem: being asked to accomplish something that is simply beyond your physical capability. Whether it’s stuffing a thousand envelopes in an hour, answering a hundred phone calls in the same time frame, quality checking a delivery of USBs, or coming up with a comprehensive marketing strategy, some tasks need an extra set of hands, an extra set of eyes or an extra brain to bounce ideas around.

The second context is a much more personal issue: being unable to cope (for whatever reason) at work with the possibility of being unable to cope extending into your non-work life. There are a million reasons why someone might be struggling at work, including personality differences, workload pressures, bullying, motivational struggles, financial issues, relationship issues, physical health issues, mental health issues or even cultural issues.

Many companies these days offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP for short) for workers who need help. An EAP is a confidential counselling scheme and can be used by each and every employee for as long or as short a time as needed to identify and work through an individual’s problems. It is a voluntary program – no one is forced to use it – and for those who choose to, their involvement is not disclosed to anyone, not even their employer, even though the employer is the one who pays for the program to exist.

For those whose workplaces don’t have an EAP, it can be harder. But approaching your boss, a trusted colleague or the human resources department for a frank discussion could be just as valuable.

It’s not uncommon these days to hear, ‘You don’t bring your personal life to work.’ Sometimes it’s important advice to be strictly adhered to. No one at work needs to (or wants to) know about your detailed sexual history, your sister’s husband’s cousin’s religious cult or the timeshare property you’ve invested in that only needs a few more investors to be fully subscribed (hint, hint). But if you’re a full-time employee, then chances are you spend more time working than doing anything else in your life, even sleeping, and you don’t just spend that time working. You also spend that time developing friendships, making acquaintances, forming important connections. These people care about you. They want your experience at work, and their own, to be an enjoyable one. Opening up and finding the courage to say three little words – ‘I need help’ – could be the first step to getting it.

‘I don’t know how.’

It’s an unfortunate fact that starting many new jobs is like being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool without anyone asking if you can actually swim. Induction processes can sometimes be as brief as reading a couple of internal policies that HR considers crucial and being shown where the toilets are.

So when you suddenly find yourself the expected expert on a customer relationship management software program that you’ve never used before or a warehousing process that is different to the one in use at your previous job or even a brand new photocopier, it shouldn’t just be okay, it should be expected that you will say, ‘Actually, I’ve never used this before. Can someone show me how?’

Trying to simply feel your way through and learning a new skill on the fly might get you there eventually (or it might be a rather torturous and considerably longer period of trial and error than you or anyone relying on you would prefer), but wouldn’t it be better to know how before you’re actually expected to do it? An hour, a day or, if you’re really lucky, a week of training could turn you into the go-to person everyone is hoping you could be. So resisting trying to perform tasks you have never been trained for could actually be the path of least resistance.

‘I’m going to delegate this to someone else.’

Making the decision to delegate a task is something we should all be doing more often. Even if you are the office junior and literally have no one newer to the job or lower on the pay scale than you. Because as much as you would like it not to be the case, you can’t do everything yourself. And sometimes there are people better suited to whatever the task is.

Delegate, in this context, isn’t used as a synonym for order. It is meant to encompass a lengthier process of recognising that there is someone else in the business with the skills to do what needs to be done to a higher standard than you ever could and then politely asking them if they can help you out by taking over the task.

I have watched hundreds of people slaving their way through writing and editing content or formatting lengthy Word documents, impacting severely on the productive hours in their day, before eventually falling on their sword and doing what they should have done in the first place: delegate it to someone else (me in this case). Why operations managers and customer service staff think they should be able to do these things as well as someone with five years of training and twenty years of experience in writing, editing and Microsoft Word is beyond me. What takes me ten minutes can take others ten hours and it still won’t be done properly.

And just in case you think I’m tooting my own horn a little too loudly, I will freely admit that as soon as Microsoft Excel requires even a basic equation, I head straight to the nearest spreadsheet expert to ask for help. (The same goes for anything to do with my car that is more complicated than opening the door, putting the key in the ignition, pressing the pedals and steering. And sometimes I don’t even do those things well.) Because I can’t do everything. And neither can you.

‘This meeting isn’t a worthwhile use of my time.’

Everybody, at one time or another, has sat through a meeting and thought to themselves, ‘We’re not achieving anything.’ Or worse, ‘Why am I here? This has nothing to do with me.’

There are some basic common sense guidelines for conducting a meeting:

*Someone should be in charge. If it appears no one is, then little will be accomplished. There are two possible actions: take charge (if it’s your meeting) or decline to attend until somebody else takes charge.
*There should be a detailed agenda. If there isn’t, how can you assess whether your presence is truly required? How can you prepare for the meeting if you don’t know what you should be preparing for? Again you have two options: create a detailed agenda (if it’s your meeting) or decline to attend until somebody circulates one.
*Someone should be taking minutes. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a meeting and afterwards having a session of he said, she said because two people remember the meeting differently. The minutes should be circulated promptly while the happenings of the meeting are still fresh in everybody’s mind.
*There should be a to-do list as a result of the meeting. There’s no point having a meeting if it isn’t a mechanism to move your project forward. And each to-do should have a name and deadline attached.

If the meetings you are attending don’t follow these four guidelines, then the likelihood is that you could be focusing your time on more productive tasks. And isn’t productivity the catch-cry of all workplaces these days?

‘You’re welcome.’

When thanked for contributing at work, many people unwittingly devalue their time and effort with two little words: ‘No problem.’ It’s usually completely untrue because if someone has asked you to do something, then you probably went to some effort – even if it was just a little – in order to achieve it.

To emphasise your value, both to yourself and to the person thanking you, you should train yourself to respond to gratitude with one simple phrase: ‘You’re welcome.’ This way you are both accepting their appreciation while reinforcing that there was time and effort involved.

Adjusting a habit like this can be difficult because it is often a default phrase when you hear the words ‘thank you’. For quite some time, I had a reminder note taped beside my office telephone, which is where I transgressed most of the time, that said, ‘Don’t say “no problem”. Say “you’re welcome.” Your time is valuable.’ Trust me, eventually, it works.

*First published on LinkedIn 29 September 2014


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