5 smart ways to ask for help without seeming incompetent

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can handle complicated assignments and you are smart enough to realize when you need help to complete them.

The Beatles got by with a little help from their friends, so why do you feel bad asking for assistance at work? You want to be perceived as confident, clever, and capable on the job because you are. But you also need to get out of your comfort zone in order to grow, and sometimes that requires biting off more than you alone can chew. Taking on big projects often means taking on big problems. You can handle complicated assignments and you are smart enough to realize when you need help to complete them. Here are five ways to ask for help at work without coming off as incompetent.

1. Approach with confidence

Everyone needs help sometimes, so don’t apologize for it. Part of your manager’s job is to guide your projects. No one is hired with all the knowledge they need to do every task in the job description. Your manager expects you to consult her when you get stuck. Before going to her, figure out why you need help. Is this project beyond your skill set? Do you have so much other work to do that you can’t meet a deadline? Then, be courageous. Instead of approaching her with, “I’m sorry to bother you with this.” Go with, “I’d appreciate your help with this.”

2. Do your homework

Go to your manager with a specific question, situation, or plan. You may think you don’t even know where to start, but don’t let that overwhelm you. Make a bullet point list of the ways you’ve already tried to solve the issue so she doesn’t waste time trying those solutions again. Write down any questions you have. Be ready to give a high-level synopsis of the situation. To focus your thoughts, use the who, what, when, where, why, and how method: Who is involved in the problem? What exactly is the problem? When did the problem occur? Where did the problem happen? Why did the problem arise? How did the problem develop? Bringing these answers to your supervisor gives her context and the seeds of a plan.

3. Know whose help you need

Has a colleague already been through a similar situation? If the task is over your head, try to find a Subject Matter Expert within the company you can sound out before approaching your manager. Is this something a coworker can assist you with? If you are temporarily overwhelmed with responsibilities, is there a peer willing to help you with a short-term task?

4. Be willing to reciprocate

The best way to ask someone for help is to have already helped them, so be proactive. When a peer asks you for help, try to let “Yes,” be your first response so you can pay it forward. The time will come when you need to lean on them. Try to maintain an open line of communication with your manager. If the only time you talk to her is when you have a problem, she won’t want to see you. Seek mentors both inside and outside the company. You can tap these resources when you get in trouble.

5. Remember that timing is everything

Make a good effort to accomplish the work yourself, but don’t wait until the project is so at risk that the client is angry. Most managers prefer to clean up a small mess rather than a big one. And don’t be a repeat offender. If your boss sends you emails regarding how to solve this problem, flag them and keep them for future reference. If the two of you are meeting about the problem, take notes and file them. Thank her for her help. If your company has a recognition, incentive, or reward program, make sure you use it to acknowledge her and every one else who helped you.

A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.