I admit, I have some weird aspirations. When I was little, my biggest bucket list item was to order something from a TV commercial (I never did because by the time I was old enough, TV commercials weren’t really a thing anymore). But this weekend, I lived out my most recent odd obsession. I spontaneously power washed my neighbor’s house.
Now, using a power washer is definitely a weird goal, but I achieved it! And I did so by asking. In a perfect coincidence of timing, I just finished reading Wayne Baker’s All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success. Baker’s main message throughout the book is about the importance of creating a culture of giving and receiving at work. Baker goes on about all the myriad benefits of such a culture for the entirety of his book, but here are some of the studied effects: “higher job performance and satisfaction; new hire success; finding jobs — or talent for job openings; learning and professional development; creativity and innovation; managing stress; team performance; cost reduction; productivity and profitability.”
This culture of “generalized reciprocity” — where people give and receive freely, as opposed to tracking favors as a “tit-for-tat exchange” — seems wonderful, and it turns out, the biggest barrier to unlocking this potential isn’t convincing people to give, like Baker initially assumed, instead it’s getting people to ask:
“I learned that most people are in fact willing to help — if they are asked. But most people don’t ask, and as a result, all those answers, solutions, and resources were being left untouched, unused, and wasted — for no good reason.”
Making clear requests is key. People aren’t mind readers, and being clear about what you need help with allows people to provide help in the most efficient and effective way:
“It’s critical to understand that help rarely arrives unasked for. In fact, studies show that as much as 90 percent of the help that is provided in the workplace occurs only after requests for help have been made.”
Granted, most people probably don’t share my desire to power wash, but I found a lot of similarities between my experience achieving this goal and Baker’s messages about the benefits of asking. To let you know just how closely I held this goal, this wasn’t the first time I’d made a request to power wash. In the last month, I did a bit of research and reached out to the University of Michigan Facilities & Operations department as well as the Ann Arbor government’s volunteer coordinators, asking if there were any opportunities for me to help out with power washing.
Like Baker recommends, I shared my motivation for the request: “When others know why you are making the request, they are more motivated to respond.” When I want to relax or calm down, I’ll often watch industrial carpet cleaning videos, which then turned into power washing videos (trust me, it’s a niche). It’s so satisfying to watch the process of people being able to clean something so thoroughly, and I wanted to have that experience. I also prefaced my request by saying, “I have a bit of a silly question.” As Jia Jiang found in his TED talk “100 Days of Rejection,” acknowledging people’s judgments upfront can make your request more effective:
“But then I found I could do this because I mentioned, “Is that weird?” I mentioned the doubt that he was having. And because I mentioned, ‘Is that weird?’, that means I wasn’t weird. That means I was actually thinking just like him, seeing this as a weird thing. And again, and again, I learned that if I mention some doubt people might have before I ask the question, I gained their trust. People were more likely to say yes to me.”
Even with these tools, I still experienced rejection. The University said no because of liability issues, but they said I could come watch them remove graffiti if I wanted. I thanked them and declined because I didn’t want to make people feel uncomfortable with me just watching them do their work. The Ann Arbor government responded by saying that it was definitely an interesting question, so they’d check and get back to me, but I didn’t get another email.
But if you look at both of these responses, neither group shut me down. The University tried to offer me an alternative that their policy would allow, and the Ann Arbor government never ended up actually saying no — it probably got lost since a request like this isn’t a priority. Oftentimes, rejection isn’t as straightforward as we might perceive it to be. Baker summarizes Jang’s lessons about the nature of rejection:
“Jia also learned that rejection isn’t personal. It’s an opinion, not the objective truth about the merit of an idea. In fact, a rejection may say more about the rejector than the requester or request, and you generally don’t know the reason behind the ‘no’ you get: maybe the person wishes to help but is unable, the timing isn’t right, or they are just having a bad day.”
While I probably could have followed up with the Ann Arbor government, I decided to shelve the idea for another time. And then imagine my surprise when I’m working at my dining room table, and I hear what I thought was my neighbor revving up a lawn mower, but when I look up, it’s a power washer! I sprinted outside of the house (in my regular, non-power washing clothes) and introduced myself, saying that I’m his neighbor Alicia and I have a very silly question. I explained my love of power washing videos and asked if I could help him power wash his patio. He paused, said that it was definitely the weirdest request he’d ever gotten. I spent the next hour getting soaked and splattered in mud, and I loved every second.
Alicia Haun is a content marketing intern at Riverbank Consulting Group. Alicia is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she also works with the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Alicia is passionate about the field of positive organizational psychology and looks forward to helping work become a place of flourishing.