In a 1975 experiment designed to explore social norms and “helping” behaviors, a psychologist posing as a sunbather would continuously get up and walk away from a radio which he had sitting and playing on his towel on a crowded beach.  Half the time, he would merely walk away without saying anything to anybody, and the other half of the time, he would pick out someone close by and ask them:”Would you mind watching my things?”  In both cases, however, once the sunbather departed, another member of the experimental team would come up, snatch the radio, and run away with it.  The results?  In those cases where no prior commitment to help from another person was obtained, only 20% of the neighbors made any sort of attempt to stop the theft.  In those cases when they had agreed to lend a hand, however, the number jumped to 95% in terms of people taking action to stop the robbery — with some folks actually grabbing the thief by the arm and pulling the radio away from him!

In the job market, we confess that we’ve seen this same psychology play out time and time again, with many job hunters merely suggesting or implying that they need help from other people — but falling short of directly asking for it.  As in the experiment above, however, the odds of a person getting involved in your job search or taking action to assist you are astronomically lower if you don’t ask them to become engaged, personally, with a specific task or action item.  In fact, we suspect this is why so many people report networking aggressively (until they’re sick of the taste of coffee!) but not having much to show for it in terms of actual leads or referrals.  Our suspicion is that many individuals are simply leaving too much up to chance, hoping/assuming their contacts will step up to the plate and help, but not actually asking them for the favors they need– or giving them any specific, useful parameters to follow.

Along these lines, we’d encourage all of our clients to practice a more direct style of requesting favors and to do what it takes to get people more personally involved and invested in their search efforts.  A few examples of how this might sound in actual practice would be:

— “I’d love an introduction to that contact of yours you mentioned over at Starbucks.  Could I count on you to call that person by the end of the week with a few words of endorsement on my behalf?”

— “You know, a few weeks ago you mentioned your willingness to provide some feedback on my resume, and at the time, I wasn’t ready to take you up on this generous offer.  Now that I’m a bit farther along in the drafting process, however, would you mind if I sent my latest version along to you — and would you possibly have time by the end of the week to send along your thoughts on it, since I have some opportunities I’m excited to start pursuing?”

— “I’ve read all about your company and have also come across several articles that describe your specific background and leadership style.  Based on this research, I’ll be honest, I’d be extremely excited to work for you and am confident I could add a great deal of value to your operations.  Could you find 20 minutes on your calendar this week for us to explore this possibility?”

The difference (and psychology) between the messages above and the ones most job seekers tend to utter may be subtle, but we’re convinced they can make a very real difference in a candidate’s overall success rate.  Time and time again, we see a clear gap between peoples’ expectations of assistance and the words they’ve actually used to ask for help from their contacts and those around them.

In closing, as one social psychologist (Dr. David Gershaw) puts it: “When making such a request and having the other person agree to it, you will assure that the potential helper will take notice and feel responsible to help.  It is likely to encourage empathy — a feeling of ” we-ness” — between the potential helper and the person making the request.  If you want to increase the probability that another person will help you, you need to be assertive enough to clearly ask for help.  While it may not be as simple or successful as the experiment described above, it is much better than not asking at all.”