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- Wayne Baker is a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations. He is a cofounder and board member of Give and Take Inc.
- The following is an excerpt from his book “All You Have to Do Is Ask.”
- In it, he writes that we often underestimate how willing people are to help us. And we often limit ourselves unnecessarily when we’re turned down for the first time.
- In fact, if you ask for help on something complicated, people may actually view you as more competent.
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Asking for help is something that everyone struggles with. One way to overcome this reluctance is to understand two common beliefs about asking and then to update these beliefs based on evidence from research.
We underestimate other people’s willingness and ability to help
Imagine you’re on the streets of New York when you realize you forgot to make a critical phone call. Now whether or not your best friend gets offered a job depends on you providing a reference within the next half hour. You reach into your pocket or purse, pull out your cellphone, and discover the battery’s dead. Your pulse quickens. Now what? How about asking a stranger to borrow a phone? Would you be comfortable doing that? Most people dread the mere thought of approaching strangers, never mind asking for a favor like borrowing a phone. “Too awkward,” you might think to yourself. And plus, what are the chances of someone actually saying yes?
Turns out, much higher than you think. That’s what psychologists discovered in a study conducted at Columbia University in New York City (a place not exactly known for the kindness of strangers). Participants had to approach strangers on the street and simply ask, “Can I use your cellphone to make a call?” They couldn’t elaborate on why they needed it, or invent some kind of sob story. Nevertheless, much to their surprise, many strangers were willing to oblige: On average, it only took two tries to get a New Yorker to lend them a phone.
In variations of the experiment, other participants had to approach strangers and ask them to fill out a questionnaire, or pretend to be lost and ask to be escorted to a nearby building. Once again, they had to ask only two strangers before one would agree to complete the questionnaire.
And it only took an average of 2.3 asks to get a stranger to escort them somewhere. But here’s the really interesting part. Before sending participants out to conduct these experiments, the psychologists had asked them to estimate how many strangers they thought they would have to approach before getting a “yes.” Turns out, their estimates were way off. They predicted that they would have to ask two or three times as many strangers to get one yes than they actually did.
- Courtesy of Wayne Baker
Finally, the psychologists wanted to know what would happen if the request was even bigger: like for money. They recruited volunteers from the New York City metropolitan area who were participating in Team in Training, a program where people train to walk, run, or bike a marathon or half marathon, or to compete in a triathlon, to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The only catch is that they have to meet a fundraising goal in order to participate.
When the researchers asked participants to estimate how many people they would have to ask to raise the required funds, they predicted, on average, 210 people. But in reality, they had to ask only 122. And when asked how much they thought people would give, they predicted that the average donation would be $48.33 – when in fact the average donation was $63.80.
Across all these studies we see a common pattern: We routinely underestimate others’ willingness and ability to help. But the truth is that people actually help one another more often than you might think. In fact, one global Gallup survey found that three out of four Americans (73%) helped a stranger in need within the month, and that the majority of people in more than half of the 140 countries surveyed have done the same. Moreover, Gallup estimates that, worldwide, 2.2 billion people helped strangers in just a single month. Another study by an international team of anthropologists and linguists found that of 1,057 everyday requests – whether for some resource, some service, or some support – almost 90% were immediately fulfilled.
However, so many of us assume that others aren’t willing to help. We fear we’ll be rejected. Or we figure that even if others are willing to help, no one will have the time or ability. I’ve observed this self-limiting belief time and time again in events I’ve facilitated over the years. Often, someone will take me aside and whisper, “I’m not going to ask for what I really need because I know no one here can help me.” Whenever this happens, my response is always the same: “You never know what people know or who they know until you ask. Don’t prejudge the capabilities of the group. Just ask for what you really need.” And when they do, they are rarely disappointed.
It stands to reason that when a person grants a favor once, you might be emboldened to ask for a second. But what happens when a person declines your request? Would you make a second one in the future? Most people wouldn’t dare. But here, too, you would be limiting yourself unnecessarily. Researchers have found that people are likely to respond to your second request, because they feel bad that they refused you the first time. Many of us also tend to feel uncomfortable making requests of anyone beyond our “inner circle” of family and close friends. But in doing so we vastly underestimate the responsiveness of “weak ties” – our acquaintances and people we don’t know very well. Weak ties, researchers have learned, are extremely valuable because they are the bridges between social circles. Novel information, new solutions to problems, and other resources travel across these bridges. We also vastly underestimate the responsiveness of “dormant ties” – the connections we once had that we haven’t maintained.
But most people in your past would actually welcome hearing from – and helping – you, according to organizational researchers. The passage of time doesn’t erase a shared history of understanding, emotions, and trust.
And reactivating these dormant relationships can be deeply rewarding, in more ways than one. Because you and your high school classmate now live in different worlds, your knowledge and social networks don’t overlap as much as they once did. In other words, this person knows things – and people – that you don’t. Dormant ties can help you in ways you might not even realize, but you have to ask.
We perceive there to be social costs of seeking help
Do you worry that asking for help is a sign of weakness? A common belief is that competent people don’t ask for help. Organizational psychologists call this the “social costs of seeking help.”
- Courtesy of Wayne Baker
According to this belief, if you can’t figure everything out for yourself, you’re telling others that you’re weak, lazy, ignorant, dependent, or incapable of doing your job. The good news is that this fear is largely unfounded. Under the right circumstances, asking for help can actually increase perceptions of your competence, according to research by a Harvard-Wharton team. For one, asking for advice says you are confident. It conveys wisdom (you know what you don’t know, and you know when to ask). And it says you are willing to take risks. But to make a positive impression, you have to make thoughtful, intelligent requests. Asking for advice about a challenging task will increase perceptions of your competence, but asking for advice about a simple, easy, or trivial one will make people think you’re either incompetent or lazy.
If we perceive there to be high social costs to asking for help, does that mean that women, who (unfortunately) often have to work harder to earn social capital in the workplace and in society generally, are more reluctant than men to ask for help? The answer is complicated, as various studies have discovered. It depends on what is being asked for, the gender composition of the group, the nature of the task or work, and more.
In cultures where men are expected to be more self-reliant and help seeking is considered an atypical behavior for male leaders, then men will be less likely than women to seek help, fearing that it would impugn their reputations for competence. But the research shows that when working on teams where men are in the majority and when doing stereotypically “male” tasks, such as developing a negotiation strategy, both men and women are more likely to ask for performance feedback. Men in male-majority groups doing male tasks are more likely to seek feedback, compared with men in female-majority groups, and much more likely to do so compared with women in female groups with male-oriented tasks. Interestingly enough, women aren’t likely to seek feedback in a majority female group that does stereotypical “female” tasks (such as developing a relationship strategy for managing conflict).
Learning to ask for what we need is easier once we update our beliefs based on research evidence. Most people are, in fact, willing and able to help – if you ask. And, asking for help and advice will elevate perceptions of your competence – as long as you make a thoughtful, intelligent request.
Adapted from “ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ASK: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success” © 2020 by Wayne Baker. Published by Currency, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on January 14. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.