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Why Don’t We Ask for and Accept Help from Colleagues?

Why Don’t We Ask for and Accept Help from Colleagues?

Helpful and co-operative, employees tend to develop good-quality relationships, which can improve individual, team and business performance through better communication and shared understanding. We all have problems, we all have questions, we all need a helping hand from time to time, especially in such demanding circumstances as those we’re facing this Covid-riddled year.

But oddly enough though there is research that indicates that many people frequently don’t like the idea of asking for help or being helped. In one study* published in 2018, researchers surveyed 238 employees from a variety of industries. The employees were asked to explain why they would or wouldn’t accept help from a colleague.

Five key points emerged as the reasons people choose to avoid being helped. They were:

  • preferring to be self-reliant and complete their work on their own;
  • wanting to protect their image;
  • not wanting to feel obligated to return the favour;
  • not trusting their colleagues’ motives;
  • believing that their colleagues are incompetent.

It seems crazy, but resistance to asking for help is more widespread than you might think. The original findings were tested in a separate survey of 500 different employees to find out how much they agreed with various reasons for not seeking help.

Nearly two-thirds said that they preferred to finish their work without assistance from colleagues. Over half agreed that this allowed them to be seen as “high potential” employees. Almost 20% said that they normally refuse offers of help so that they won’t owe their colleagues any favours. Nearly 10% said that their colleagues are “out for themselves,” and roughly 8% thought that their colleagues lacked the competence to help finish tasks.

This “stiff upper lippery” is counterproductive. Employees who resist accepting help are more likely to put in extra hours to complete the task than to accept assistance. Such views increase the risk of illness and burnout.

Additionally, people who view accepting help at work negatively are more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs and to think about leaving. These employees have lower levels of job performance, are less helpful themselves, and are less willing to go the extra mile for their organisation. So they aren’t just failing to realise the benefits of helping behaviours; there are negative consequences as well.

The assumptions of those who won’t accept help about how others seen them are also inaccurate. People with negative views about accepting help are seen less favourably by their supervisors. In contrast, those who embrace help are more likely to be rated by their manager as exhibiting “positive follower” qualities (meaning they are viewed as hardworking and productive team players).

Taken together, the studies suggest that employees who are unwilling to accept help when they need it may undermine their own performance and the effectiveness of their team, so it would be sensible for employers to directly address these negative beliefs.

To build trust in your team members’ motives and competence, demonstrate your trust in those employees by giving them challenging assignments, ownership of certain decisions, direct access to sensitive information or valuable stakeholders, and so on.

Giving and receiving help go hand-in-hand. You can create an environment where helping and supporting each another is encouraged and recognised. Recognise successful collaborations and explaining how they contribute to the organisation’s larger goals and mission. Show your own willingness to help and be helped, since employees are more likely to see the merits of these behaviours when they observe their leaders doing the same thing.

NB Don’t send mixed messages. If employees who go it alone progress faster than those who give and receive support, people will notice the discrepancy — and they’ll go back to looking out for number one, to their detriment and that of the business.

* Thompson, P. S., & Bolino, M. C. (2018). Negative beliefs about accepting coworker help: Implications for employee attitudes, job performance, and reputation. Journal of Applied Psychology


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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2020 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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