Employees are reluctant to ask for help in the workplace because the process leaves them feeling discomforted and stressed – and they doubt that the outcomes of their requests will be effective anyway. That’s the message from new research by management-science gurus HEC Paris. According to results from five different studies, the sense of powerlessness that help-seekers often experience when they need a hand often leads them to underestimate the lengths to which their colleagues will go to provide assistance.

But research lead Professor Daniel Newark says: “At some point, most of us come across tasks that we’re not sure how to carry out. Help – both giving and receiving it – makes us feel good, reminding us that we are part of a community.”

He adds that organisations would function more effectively if help flowed back and forth more freely: “The less friction there is in asking for help,” he says, “the easier it can be for resources such as information, expertise and effort to find their way to where they are needed.” So, what can senior managers do to make it easier for their staff to ask for help, and assure them that there’s no need to feel powerless or embarrassed?

In the view of The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper, “The motto here is, ‘Reward the behaviours you want’. Make it part of your appraisal system that employees are judged not solely on their own performance, but on how much they help other people. This is one of those areas where 360-degree feedback can play a hugely beneficial role. If part of your success at work is helping others, then that should be recognised and acknowledged.”

Cooper cautions: “acts of help should not be encouraged towards anything that is outside the job description, or in the area of favours, because that’s not helpful at all. The last thing you want is to run an organisation or develop its staff on the basis of a system of favours. But it would be constructive if, in the culture of your organisation, it’s generally accepted that you’re not very good at your job if you’re not helping other people get better at theirs. And when it comes to how you manage collaboration between departments, the starting point should always be a mutual sense of, ‘How may we help you? How can we make this work together?’ That always beats a more rivalrous or competitive setup.”

She adds: “We have to think about the broader benefits of helping each other. If you help somebody, then you’ve bonded with them in a powerful way; you have more of a benign, vested interest in their success, because you’ve contributed to it. When you’re a helper, you’re in a far more powerful position than the help-seeker. But what we need to do is reduce that power differential to the point that being asked to help someone is a gift: that person has bestowed upon you the chance to make a difference to their life, and that should actually be quite a humbling moment.

“If you want people to help each other, then you have to make that an intrinsic part of your organisational culture.”

To find out how leaders can become role models, check out this learning item from the Institute