How to look like you know what you’re doing at work when you don’t
There’s going to be a time in your career that you will get stumped or feel insecure.
No one wants to come off as incompetent or inexperienced to their boss or coworkers, but a big part of advancing in your career is learning new things and not being afraid to seek out help.
“People are afraid to ask for help because we don’t want to look dumb or like we don’t know what we are doing,” said Jodi Glickman, author of “Great on the Job: What to Say, How to Say It. The Secrets of Getting Ahead.”
But here’s the thing: No one knows everything and the best leaders aren’t shy about getting input from others. There are even ways to ask for help that can make you look smart.
Don’t talk yourself down
Being asked to take the lead on a new project can be scary, and self-doubt can creep in. But don’t let it take over.
“Quite often people know more than they think they know, but we focus on the negative,” said Anna Bray, an executive and career coach at Jody Michael Associates.
Impostor syndrome is common in the workplace. It erodes our confidence and makes us feel inadequate and question our capabilities, despite our previous successes.
“Make a list of all the things you do well,” suggested Bray. “Separate the facts from the fear you are feeling.”
And at some point, you just have to dive in and start tackling the problem. “Sometimes, we sit on the edge and we look in and think: ‘I can’t do it.’ But if you just get in you realize you can do more and start to flourish,” said Bray.
Admit you’re still learning and come up with a game plan
If you really have no idea where to start on an assignment, the key is to show enthusiasm.
Tell your boss that it sounds like a great opportunity, but also be transparent that you’ve never done something like this before, suggested Glickman. “The goal is to set yourself up for success.”
Then, develop a plan of action on how to approach the project. Create an outline or a list of bullet points that you can reference along the way and ask for guidance on whether you’re on the right track.
It’s also a good idea to ask for recommendations of people you can speak with who have worked on similar projects, rather than trying to figure it all out yourself.
“If someone asks you to do something and you don’t know how to do it and you say ‘great’ and then go and Google it, what are the chances you are going to do it right? Slim to none,” said Glickman.
Ask for help when you get stuck
If you’ve been chugging along on a project and suddenly hit a roadblock that you can’t seem to overcome, don’t be shy about asking for help.
When approaching someone for assistance, provide as much context as you can. Give an update on your progress, and then explain the problem and all the various ways you’ve tried to fix the issue.
“Set yourself up on a positive note,” said Glickman. “You don’t want to walk in and say: ‘I don’t know what to do.'”
You should also come prepared with a few ideas about how to move forward.
You can then ask your manager if he or she agrees with the approach or if there is something you are overlooking. “This puts you on more equal footing, instead of just saying, ‘what should I do?'” said Glickman.
Be specific with your request
Most people are happy to lend a hand — but no one likes to feel used or taken advantage of. A vague request like: “Hey, I need your help with something,” can be off-putting.
“People want to help, but they don’t want to be imposed upon,” said Nora Bouchard, an executive and leadership coach. We all have our deadlines and tasks we are trying to manage.
Aside from making it clear that you’ve done your due diligence with solving the problem, give a time frame of when you are looking to chat and for how long.
“Don’t just demand their attention right then and there, respect their time,” said Bray.
And if it’s a colleague you are approaching, it’s also helpful to explain why you chose them for assistance.
Don’t become a broken record
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Managers and bosses should encourage it and even exemplify it.
The problem is when you are asking for the same type of assistance repeatedly.
“If you ask the same question to the same person three times, then you do have a problem,” said Marc Cenedella, CEO of Ladders.
Make sure to learn from their guidance and apply it to future problems as they come up.
Get more training
If you do find yourself getting stuck on the same issue, be proactive in beefing up your skills.
There are various free tutorials and courses online and industry groups that hold conferences and training courses.
If you still feel like you need more instruction, research training programs and approach your boss about signing up.
But avoid coming off as incompetent. “Say you have a baseline of adequacy, but want to be better and give business reasons why they should pay,” suggested Glickman.
Come prepared with information about the class or conference and the cost.
“You don’t want to go to your boss with a problem, come with a solution,” Glickman said.