Asking For Help At Work Without Feeling Incompetent

by | Last updated Sep 6, 2021 | Executive Women

Asking for help at work can engender a lot of self-judgment. We feel incompetent when we are unable to accomplish everything on our plate, but the truth is, asking for help can actually pay dividends for us down the line.

Why is asking for help at work hard?


We want to appear self-reliant or knowledgeable

Example: Let’s say you’re in a meeting and an acronym was used confidently by both your boss and colleague and no one seemed to blink, much less don the same quizzical expression you are feeling inside. As the minutes pass, you become more and more certain that you have no clue what is being discussed. And then, WHAMMO, your boss directs you to lead a project involving said acronym. *Gulp.*

We are worried about appearing incompetent 

Example: You are new to an organization and have just impressed the hiring manager and your boss with your years of experience and broad skill set. Your first project is before you and you want to demonstrate your ability (and the cost and time savings you bring to the organization) by handling it entirely on your own. However, this organization follows different protocols, leaving you puzzled with how to do what they’ve hired you to do. You worry that by asking for help explaining the task, they will doubt their decision to hire you in the first place. 

We are concerned that others won’t be willing or able to help us 

Let’s face it, we all have experienced the fear of rejection from time to time. But what if we humble ourselves and ask for help, only to then get turned away? The potential for humiliation can keep us suffering in silence without the help we desperately need. 

We don’t know who to ask or what to ask for 

Example: you know you need help but you are a little confused about who to ask. If you ask the wrong person, the “truth” will be made clear: you don’t know what you’re doing. Alas, you default to this: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt”, then resume ruminating over the help you need but that you can’t bring yourself to ask for.

The longer we wait, the worse it gets 

  • The more we doubt our abilities
  • The bigger the problem gets in our minds
  • The more time the problem has to grow worse
  • The less time we have to solve the problem before a deadline

Bottom line: we can’t be successful at work if we don’t ask for what we need.

Lay the groundwork today

Lay the groundwork for the future requests for help that you know you are going to have down the line by helping others first. 

Consider your unique gifts: 

  • What comes easily to you? 
  • What do you enjoy that others see as a chore? 
  • What do people come to you for? 

Build some goodwill with others by offering to help them before you yourself need any help. By establishing a reputation as someone who is happy to lend a hand, others will be ready to reciprocate when you need it.

How does asking for help serve us?

It forces us to acknowledge our weaknesses 

When we know our shortcomings, we can make hiring decisions that overcome them and/or get the help we need to manage them. We have imperfections just like everyone else and risk burnout or a flawed outcome if we don’t rely on the help and skills of others along the way. 

It connects us to our colleagues

Asking for help humanizes us and engenders the support and loyalty of our teams. Consider the books you read or the movies you are drawn to; chances are, there is a flawed hero at the heart of it. The joy of the book is in following the story of how the hero overcomes these flaws. Moreover, when people recognize themselves in their leader, they are more apt to trust them. People work, risk, create and sacrifice for leaders they trust and with whom they feel connected. 

It permits others to do the same 

When people feel empowered to ask for help, the result is a reduced number of errors and colleagues who begin to rely on one another. The outcome is a more well-trained, well-equipped, and capable workforce.

Woman at laptop computer

What kind of help do you need, and who could offer you help?  

Review this post about work overload 

Assess your situation: is it your ongoing work, a backlog, an event, or creating an asset that has put you behind? 

Determine what the help would look like 

What type of tasks will be involved? What are your goals for the project? What are the steps and resources needed to achieve your goal? Get specific. 

Start with your colleagues 

Unless the workload you are feeling is also being felt by all of your colleagues right now, start by going to them for help. Keep the following in mind: 

  • They will feel flattered. Asking someone for help indicates to that person that you see them as having something of value to offer. 
  • Moreover, study after study has shown that people have an innate desire to be helpful. They want to lend you a hand … 
  • … UNLESS you appear to be offloading work onto them that you simply don’t want to do.
  • Tell them when you expect to be able to reciprocate and what exactly you can take off their plate, or what specific skills you can offer them down the line.

Set a timeframe

How long you will need the help and what sort of support/availability can you offer the person helping you? 

Bonus Tip: Asking others for help is a must-do before raising the issue with your boss.

How to ask a colleague for help

Ask smartly.

We’ve all heard of SMART goals; well, the same acronym applies when we ask for help. 

  • Specific 

    • Be specific about the kind of help you need and what a successful outcome looks like. 

    • Ask clearly: “I would like to ask for some help.” This is not the time to be vague or soft, as in, “Would you like to …” or “If you have time…”
    • Do not lead with an apology: “I’m sorry to bother you with this…”
  • Meaningful 

    • Explain what getting the help you need will mean to you and your ability to reach your goals. 

  • Action-oriented

    • Share the actions you need your colleague to take to be of assistance. 

  • Realistic

    • Ensure that your ask is appropriate in scope. 

  • Time-bound

    • Convey when the task needs to be complete in order for the help to have an impact. 

Accept the help you are offered.

  • If the colleague needs to negotiate on some of the SMART terms, do so, but only if the new terms work for you. 
  • A colleague may turn you down but suggest a few other resources or people who could help. Thank them for the help they provided, whether it was exactly what you asked for or not. 

How to approach your boss about help


Act quickly 

The longer you wait to ask for help, the worse the situation becomes and the fewer options you have for how to solve the issue. 


Prepare your case

Create an itemized list of everything that you are working on (listed in priority order) and the time that these tasks are taking daily/weekly. Be honest with yourself so you can be honest with your boss. That may mean keeping a daily or weekly time diary to show as evidence of your workload. 

Communicate your expectations

Demonstrate the extra time the new project or list of tasks is taking you. 

Offer solutions 

  • Come up with at least one, but preferably more, solutions to how this problem can be solved. 
  • Be specific: offer your recommendations of who could help and why and how this might work for the larger team or organization. 
  • If your department or team is overloaded, is there a way to outsource the tasks and if so, at what cost? Do the preliminary research into this solution so you can inform your manager with factual information related to costs and timing.


You want to avoid bringing your manager a problem for her to solve without also demonstrating a concerted effort that you have already made to solve the problem for her. 

Be confident and clear in asking for the help you need. You may be surprised at others’ willingness to lend you a hand. Go for it!


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