Leading Up: How to Ask for Help as a New Employee

So, you’ve just landed a new job! Congratulations! Now it’s time to learn more about yourself as a person and as a leader—no matter what your formal position is. That’s right: You’re a leader! I said it!

Whether you know it or not, you have the potential to influence the people around you, whether they’re colleagues or your boss. It’s leadership! Today, let’s talk about how to realize that potential and how you can benefit as a new employee by making sure you get what you need to be successful.

First, know that there is never shame in asking for help. It’s OK not to know all the answers, because everyone needs direction. Throughout college, you may have heard professors, TAs or previous bosses tell you, “You’re smart. Figure it out yourself.” That’s not true. Well, yes, you are smart, but you don’t have to figure it out alone! For example, if the people you count on at work don’t provide enough instructions on a task, you have the power to advocate for yourself. “Lead up!” Ask your supervisors for a leadership style that fits your needs with more detailed instructions and advice.

First, think, “What is the task that I need help with?” Be as specific as you can. Instead of “build the company website,” try “code images, text and buttons for the company’s homepage.” This will help you get a handle on what you may be struggling with and home in on details you can ask about.

Next, let’s think about what type of help you need. Ask yourself, “Am I doing this specific task consistently and proficiently?” If yes, but you’re feeling insecure or unmotivated, you need encouragement and opportunities to discuss your progress with your supervisor. Try scheduling time with them to discuss difficulties you are having. Don’t be afraid to admit that you feel uncertain about your work. Clear and open communication can help your supervisor listen to your ideas, problem solve with you and provide the encouragement you need.

If you answered “no,” that you haven’t been performing this task consistently and proficiently, then don’t stress. This just means you need a different type of help. Maybe you feel motivated to do the task, but don’t know where to start. Ask your supervisor to paint the bigger picture for you. Why are you doing this task? What direction, explanation and support do you need to accomplish it? Be flexible to change; Your initial vision of the task may shift, depending on the advice you receive. The most important factor is having this conversation as soon as possible. This way, you don’t start the task directionless and have to start over.

What if you’re insecure or intimidated because you don’t know what’s going on? Don’t beat yourself up or give up; everyone feels this way from time to time (even seasoned professionals can find themselves in this place). But how can you overcome it and find better flow at work? Lead up by asking your supervisor for detailed instructions, such as, “What is your role in this task?” “What directions do you need to follow and when?” “Are there any important specifics that have been left out of your discussions?” More than anything, don’t accept incomplete coaching. If the person you are asking doesn’t know or doesn’t have the expertise, don’t be afraid to ask someone else who does. This is about your growth.

Also remember that progress isn’t a linear process. It’s OK if you get into the swing of things, find your footing, excel, but then find that you’re uncertain again. Or that you temporarily lose motivation or don’t have the necessary expertise to complete a new task. That’s a part of learning. Each new task will demand that growth journey of you, and even a familiar task can challenge you to level up your skills. The most important factor is having self-awareness to know what your challenges are and reach out for the information you need. No matter if it’s your first job or you’re on your way to stardom in your career, this ebb and flow of knowledge, skill and willpower will continue with each task you do. And you’ll learn to move with it.

But for now, if you’re struggling for the right words or the right way to ask for what you need, here are six ideas, tips and questions to help get you going:

  1. If you are totally new to a task, lack confidence and find yourself unsure where to start:
    • “This is my first time doing this task, and I don’t want to slow the process. Could you explain it to me?”
    • “Who is the best person to help me get started?”
  2. If you are new to a task and excited about it:
    • “Can I ask a few questions before I begin?”
    • “Can I show you what I’ve done so far and get feedback?”
  3. If you have experience, but for whatever reason, remain unsure or uncertain about your task:
    • “I know how to do this, but I’m still struggling to get it done. Could we talk the assignment over?”
    • “I wanted to talk with you about a couple of options I came up with.”

 

Bonus: Try to focus on talking about one task at a time (two at maximum). This will allow you and your supervisor to go in greater depth. Remember the acronym KISS: Keep It Simple and Specific.