So as I have now become somewhat accustomed in recent months, words that keep showing up in my life trigger me to go into thinking about them and trying to understand what I can get out of them. The most recent of these words is "HELP". I spent 45 minutes talking about asking for help with some wonderful people in the Open Space session @ the Lean Kanban North America conference. The thoughts and discussion were amazing and helpful - and are incorporated in this post as well.
The word evokes many images in my mind. I see pictures of someone in the water, unable to swim or unable to fight the current in the water and yelling for someone to come and help them. I see pictures of homeless people on the street with signs and cups seeking money from passer bys to get themselves their next meal or a warm place to sleep for the night. Pictures of friends and family members and the various things that they have asked for help with over the years flash by. While thinking about all those pictures it occurred to me that there is a picture missing that I think should be in the mix - and that is a picture of my co-workers asking for help. You see, in the context of work we don't seem wired to ask for or receive help from others.
Being seen as a burden
Asking for help in the work place is essentially to be seen as a burden on the person being asked for that help. This burden mentality seems to stem from the idea that asking for help is something that places one into a vulnerable position - and that vulnerable position then translating to a weakness that an individual shouldn't be showing at work. Why? Because if you are vulnerable or weak, then at work there is no way that you can possibly advance... you know, because you don't know enough of the right things. Suppose that you don't ask for help - you may still be seen as weak because it took you too long to learn or uptake something that so many people already know because they learned it previously at the organization. This too can reinforce a lower stature perception of people because everyone else looks with a bias - a bias based on having already learned the information which took you too long to learn. Asking for help means being vulnerable with someone. Asking for help means placing your desires out into the world and in most cases into another persons hands so that they can attempt to fulfill the request.
Everyone needs help sometime - even more so at work
So here it is, everyone will need help eventually - I think it is an inevitable fact that can not be avoided. People do seem to have a huge stigma against asking for help however. People who ask for help too often can be a burden, people who ask for help on simple things are seen as dumb, people who pander for money are seen as beggars and expected to go get a job. Some of those perceptions may be true - those people asking for help, MIGHT have been able to help themselves and the temptation is to assume they SHOULD have helped themselves. The assumptions around help generate a feedback loop that prevents seeing that someone might genuinely need the assistance. A trap is formed that essentially prevents people from being able to seek the assistance they need in the first place because we don't value people in our work place or in our society being vulnerable in the slightest. You need look no further than the things we tell our children when they get injured ("...Oh you'll be fine just get up and rub some dirt in it...") or boys when young about showing their emotions ("...stop sobbing, boys don't cry..." or "...man up you sissy...").
The human animal
Being vulnerable when asking for help not being a desired trait goes against what some would say is ingrained into our being in the world in the first place. The human animal is a pack animal, we want and need interaction and conversation by our very HUMAN nature. Too often we attempt to drive this part of ourselves into a corner however treating one another as soulless automatons that can do everything for ourselves. Humans are beings that need the touch, the nurturing, and the help of other human beings. Humans need to be connected to one another - help and help seeking is a way to take that care with someone else.
Practice makes perfect
Amanda Palmer has a TED talk that is all about the art of asking. Help and asking for it is something that can be practiced. People can practice knowing when to ask, what asking looks like and being gracious and generous when asking for the help that they need. In short - we all need to understand this and practice, practice, practice. We need to have the shared understanding of these 'help' interactions with one another. There needs to be the ability to see a request for help in all of its many and varied forms - being able to see it - REALLY SEE IT, would drive people to be so much happier than I think they are generally. Connections would be made - life long friends, a spark, a touch, were the connectedness we all know are there would show on the surface so everyone could see. I will be practicing this skill as much as I can in the near future... you should too.