PM Articles > PM Perspectives > Seek Help

Seek Help

By DeAnna Burghart

This is not a hurricane article. There are plenty of those going around, and I am not yet quite in a headspace to process that experience anyway. Rather, think of this article as hurricane-adjacent—a moment when a whirlwind of recent experiences reminded me of a basic truth: most people want to help, and there is no shame in letting them.

Harvey blew through Houston with a force unlike anything I've seen. As I'm fond of joking, I grew up in Kansas City with no air conditioning, so it's hard to impress me with weather. Harvey impressed me. But as frightening as the storm was, what has lingered is the sense of awe at the destruction in its wake and how readily neighbors leapt to help each other repair it. We mucked out each other's homes, sorted damaged belongings, and helped friends and strangers alike replace lost necessities. We pitched in readily and willingly, not to earn praise or congratulations, but simply because "that's just what you do."

A colleague recently reached out to me for help with a deadline they could not meet alone. "I want to help," I assured him, "but I can't meet that deadline either. I would let you down if I promised I could." We reached a compromise; he got his client to agree to an extended deadline, and I pitched in over the weekend. He's happy he got help, I'm happy I could help, and the client is happy their project got done.

Another colleague recently relayed his frustration over a coworker who sat on a failing project rather than admit the need to reschedule. Admitting to the overwhelm and asking for help felt like failure. Now the project is a mess, and the team is left scrambling to pick up the pieces. So in the end, everyone is helping anyway, but they're far more annoyed about it. Most would have gladly pitched in before it got this bad, but they didn't know they were needed.

All three of these examples show how our urge to help dominates our social wiring. We are innately driven to help one another. It is only later in life that this urge to give and receive help gets suppressed and distorted into an imposition or a source of shame. When that happens, we end up suffering in silence and set walls around our helpful natures to avoid being taken advantage of or helping someone "unworthy" of our efforts. Where this twisted mentality takes hold, it generates miseries ranging from the subtle to the sublime—from petty irritation to unnecessary crises that could have been avoided with timely intervention.

Our work environments are no exception. We heap praise on those adventurous souls who manage to move the world alone (as if that were ever really possible), and dismiss or ignore the team builders and servant leaders. This leads ambitious employees to emulate aggressive, isolationist behaviors, suppressing our natural cooperative instincts. We've all been in at least one company that illustrates the toxic results of that mindset. Most of us didn't stick around.

In contrast, helpful companies reap numerous benefits, including lower turnover, stronger employee engagement, better profitability, and increased customer satisfaction measures. In part this is because helping other people literally makes us happier. As a species, we are programmed to cooperate with one another, so when we're in a position to do that, we thrive individually and collectively.

We shouldn't wait for a crisis to decide to ask for help to get things done.

We shouldn't wait for a crisis to decide to ask for help to get things done. In addition to making those around us batty, we almost ensure we will spend our time bouncing from one brewing crisis after another, waiting for the magic moment when we finally have no choice but to ask for help. That way lies chaos, failed projects, and damaged relationships. Instead, we need to start acknowledging our shared humanity and imperfection. Just as none of our colleagues are capable of a perfect record, neither are we. That means that in addition to helping out wherever we can, we should give others the chance to help us.

If you are overloaded, overwhelmed, or overworked, reach out to a colleague, a friend, or a family member and utter those three magical words, "I need help," as calmly as you can. Ninety-nine people out of 100 will say, "Of course! What can I do?" (You already know who the other person is. Don't ask them.) By working together to solve the problem, you will improve both your lives and the lives of everyone around you.

In those initial feverish days following Harvey, and in the weeks that followed, I never saw or heard of anyone withholding or rejecting help based on politics, religion, creed, association, race, gender, standing, or personal worth. There were only two fluid groups: people who needed help, and people who were helping. Which group you were in changed from day to day based on the needs of the moment, and that's fine too. In helping we found healing, and still do.

As life stutters back to normal, it's easy to forget that this impulse to help is almost universal. In work as in life, there is no shame in accepting it. We still tend to think of our projects (and sometimes our lives) as a competition, where we have to show how well we can manage on our own. But often, the best way to win is to ask for help.

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