This past week on my radio show, GPS Your Career, I had a lively discussion with Margaret Heffernan about what it takes for women to be successful in business today. Quickly the conversation turned to the importance of building relationships for career advancement and the hesitancy we have to leverage these relationships. In other words, we don’t ask. We don’t ask for help. Why?

An interesting study was done over thirty years ago in the New York City subways by psychologist Dr. Stanley Milgram. In this study, first year graduate students were asked to go into the subways, board a crowded train, and ask someone for a seat. The results were important on a couple of levels. First of all, what may be surprising to most of us is 68% of the people, when asked directly to give up their seats responded positively. People genuinely want to help others!

But there’s another important point. The people who had to do the asking in this study were traumatized by the task. The “ask” was so difficult for them and so far from their comfort zone, they became physically ill in some cases.

Why are we afraid to ask? There are most likely many psychological explanations. But put yourself in the position of the person being asked to help. Wouldn’t you too respond positively? People want to help especially if they understand what you need.

What are the lessons here for us?

  1. Most people want to help. The study shows that even strangers will help others when asked.
  2. You must communicate clearly what it is you need so that people can help you. In this study, the percentage of people who gave up their seats decreased when they weren’t directly asked.
  3. Understand your fear of asking is holding you back from receiving the assistance that can make a profound difference in your career.

It is vital for your career advancement to understand the politics in your company and the way decisions are made. Your network should not merely consist of people you like, but also people who can influence your professional growth. Identify these people, build relationships with them and ask for their help if appropriate.

At first, practice asking for help from those you feel comfortable with and build your “asking” muscle. 

Secondly, always offer to help others even when not asked. This will also help you to feel more confident when you make the request.