Sometimes I worry that there are only so many times I can say, “I don’t know,” at work. Hopefully, I’m not alone in this. This is my all at once a rational and irrational fear that each of us is only allotted a certain number of “I don’t know’s” and that we can use up these “free passes” to ask for help without knowing it. Once that happens, we’re a problem, but probably a problem that no one is going to address.
My fear started because as I was prepping for a new job, I read an article about the mistakes you can make at work. One on the list was not to ask for “the wrong kind of help.” Unfortunately, the author didn’t specify what the right and wrong kinds of help were, and ever since I’ve lived in fear of stumbling onto the wrong side of assistance.
Now, a few years later I’ve learned a bit about what the wrong kind of help to ask for is, but before we get into that, we should dissect why it is we’re so afraid to ask for help in the first place.

It turns out that for a lot of people, I would say most corporate citizens, have a primary motivation to not look bad.

That is, a lot of people go to work “playing scared.” Everyone wants to make a big difference, but we also want to make sure that we don’t blow it and don’t hurt our credibility in the eyes of those around us. Most of us play it safe, and that’s a problem.
Working to manage your credibility rather than being able to fully focus on what you should be doing when you go to work, like marketing or finance or procurement, dilutes the impact that you know you can have. Knowing that you have to be this careful not to look bad in the eyes of your colleagues is also damaging to your confidence.
What makes this challenge even harder to manage is that it’s often hard to know whether we’ve blown it because corporations are not places where honesty is assiduously practiced. And if most of us are honest, most of us don’t even tell our friends at work when we think their work was sub-par. There are very few companies that have dedicated the time to building a community based in trust, so most of us feel like we can’t be candid or honest.
To deal with this, we recommend that people don’t go it alone. The fact that people often are not clear or honest with one another is why it’s so important to have a true friend at work, someone you trust and can be honest with, and ideally, someone that can give you real and constructive feedback. These are hard to develop in a place where people want to protect themselves and their career, but real, valuable, and supportive relationships can be grown in the corporate world today.
But back to the answer to original question, is there a wrong type of help to ask for at work? The issue of asking for help comes up most often at the beginning of a job, and there’s usually a grace period as you start in a new position. As you start to learn the ins and outs of your new job (or company or department) be sure to also place a premium on building relationships around you. If you have relationships you can depend on (i.e. the aforementioned friend at work), you can get help from people who aren’t going to judge you.
And ironically, one of the best ways to build those relationships early on is to ask for help. This is called the Ben Franklin Effect and basically says people end up liking you more if they do you a favor or help you. But this is true if you’re asking for the right kind of help, not just any kind of help. I mean, it makes a difference whether you are asking someone in your office to cover for you because you want to get your hair done, rather than asking them to teach you something.
Asking for help that makes the company better is the first part of asking for the right kind of help. The second part of asking for the right kind of help is using your colleague’s knowledge and their experience. It’s flattering to be asked for that kind of help, even when you’re busy. Make sure that you’re asking your coworker for help that they recognize as valuable, and it doesn’t hurt when it also allows them to show off their skills a bit.
Put another way, if the help you are asking for is self-serving, that’s the bad kind. So, make sure that you ask for the right help the right way, and be willing to acknowledge that they’re taking the time to teach you so that you can help yourself in the future. This way, you’ll not only be better at your job, you’ll be building your office community in the process.

Written in collaboration with Nora Philbin 

John Philbin

John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).