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Book Review: Reinforcements: How To Get People To Help You by Heidi Grant
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Book Review: Reinforcements: How To Get People To Help You by Heidi Grant - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Reinforcements: How To Get People To Help You by Heidi Grant

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Reinforcements: How To Get People To Help You by Heidi Grant

In the introduction to How to Get People to Help You (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018), author Heidi Grant summarizes research by Stanley Milgram. Milgram asked his graduate students to enter crowded subways trains, then ask arbitrarily selected strangers to give up their seats for them. The graduate students’ discomfort with the task was so intense that Milgram, skeptical, attempted the task himself. “I actually felt as I were going to perish,” he reported.

The point to this study and several others cited by Grant is not merely that people are uncomfortable asking others for help, but that the reasons they are so uncomfortable are utterly refuted by research. Sixty-eight percent of subway riders gave up their seats when asked. In other experiments, people were consistently twice as likely to help as predicted by those tasked with asking for help, so the fear of rejection is illustrated by the subway experiment as completely unfounded. A sixty-eight percent success rate would seem to predict that people needing help would feel much more comfortable asking, if fear of being told no were the only motivating factor.

Grant identifies two others, though. Asking for help makes us feel bad, and asking for help makes us less likeable. The research debunks both claims as well.

“Although the idea of asking for even a small amount of help makes most of us horribly uncomfortable,” says Grant, “the truth about modern work is that we rely, more than ever, on the cooperation and support of others.”

In very friendly, comfortable, and literate prose, Grant walks us through the problems we all face in asking for help, then explores the reasons for different responses to requests for help. In the final section, she outlines ways we can all be better at asking for help, so that not only do we get the help we need, but that the people helping us feel good about doing so.

Grant says, “There is no better way to give someone the opportunity to feel good about themselves than to ask them to help you. It brings out the best—and the best feelings—in all of us. So let’s take the lessons from this book and start living them together.” The math seems clear: if we’re better off when other help us, and if people feel good about themselves and about us when they’ve helped, we make the workplace (at the very least!) a better place to be when we know how to ask for help effectively.

Those tempted to skip the just-do-it will probably like to begin with chapter five, The Four Steps to Getting the Help You Need. With clear, relatable examples for each, she tells us that first the helper needs to notice that you might need help, that the helper needs to believe that we actually want help, that the helper needs to take responsibility for helping (this is a big one; when someone feels he or she isn’t choosing to help, all that good feeling goes away), and the helper needs to be able to provide the help you need.

Don’t just read the subheadings and walk away, though. There’s good science and great writing to experience as you work your way through a pleasantly moderate-length book. Grant knows how painful it if for each of us just to consider asking for help (did you not cringe at the description of the subway experiment?), so she gently leads us through the minefields with lots of self-deprecation, self-admission, and humor.

In one early example, Grant explains how we all—even her—encounter people needing help multiple times per day and choose not to give it. She runs through a list from one of her own days, which includes, “Then I chose to strategically ignore an email asking parents to volunteer to help with an after-school ice cream party for my daughter’s fourth-grade class. Because, I told myself, I had done it the year before so I should be off the hook now for several years. Plus, feeding fourth graders ice cream is a job that is both thankless and sticky.”

This method of pointing at herself with a smile is a friendly hand without getting too cutesy, through some interesting, sometimes abstract, scholarly thinking. We can get through the scholarly concepts and the social awkwardness because she’s helping through, right there with us.

If this writing voice were easy to execute, everything on the business shelf would be this good, but we all know this is not the case. We would recommend this book on the excellent writing alone, but it offers so much more. We recommend it emphatically for any professional, and it could work very well for teams as well.


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Book Review: Reinforcements: How To Get People To Help You by Heidi Grant - Executive Leadership Articles

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