Helping or Hurting?

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I'm a helper.  Show me a problem and I'll jump in to try and fix it.  Shine the light on a need and I'll rally the troops to bring assistance.  I am motivated by challenges and feel a sense of accomplishment in overcoming them.  As part of a team, I want the team to run smoothly and successfully and I'll take on all kinds of responsibilities to ensure that happens.  That's what leaders do.  Take on more.  Solve problems. Help.

Or at least that's what I thought until a recent situation caused me to reconsider.  Here's the story:

I was having dinner with friend who shared that she would be spending part of the next day at her ex-husband's house cleaning their boys' room. She knew it had gotten a bit out of control and while the kids and their dad were on spring break, she wanted to help out by taking on this project.  She and her former husband are really intentional about co-parenting and from her perspective, cleaning the room was her way of helping him to be a good dad.  

Fast forward through the weekend and follow up conversations about how hard this project turned out to be, and how conflicted she felt about whether this was effectively helping or not.  Here are the questions we landed on.  What if this version of helping was actually making the situation worse?  What if helping was accidentally diminishing?  In trying to help create a "good dad" image what she was possibly doing was sending the opposite message.  One that sounded like this: This room (and the way your dad keeps it) doesn't meet the expectation of what good looks like so I'll clean it up.  Clean=Good.  Messy=Bad.  It turned out that helping was getting in the way of the ultimate goal of highlighting what was good.

Fortunately we had been discussing Liz Wiseman's book, Multipliers, at our Friday night dinner gathering.  (Yep, sometimes that's what we talk about at dinner...leadership.)  I shared that when I was diving into the book a couple of years ago, I was absolutely sure I was a leader who multiplied.  I was committed to others, to seeing what was best in them and to helping them grow.  I wanted to help them to be good...even great.  What I was surprised to learn from the research and examples in the book, is that there were times when I thought I was multiplying talents but I was accidentally diminishing them.  (Side note:  If you haven't had a chance to read Multipliers yet, I recommend picking it up today.)

Consider this leadership scenario alongside my friend's situation with the messy room:

  • There's a project that your team is working on. (Living with kids)
  • You have an idea of the desired outcome and the way it should look when completed. (Clean room)
  • Someone in the group is producing or creating results in a way that doesn't align with your vision. (Messy room)
  • You, in the spirit of helping, jump in to assist with that part of the project to get it on track. (Clean it yourself)

Rather than getting curious about that person's work style and ideas, you instead offer to help to ensure the outcome you want.  What message are you sending?  If you're like me, the story you've been telling yourself is that you're a helper and helping is good. Helping is what leaders do. True?  Definitely.  But consider what might also be true.  That helping can be diminishing.  That jumping in as a helper can make others feel like they're not enough or that their way of working is somehow wrong.  It can actually have an effect that decreases motivation and engagement and ultimately impacts the health of your team.

This is a tough one.  I know.  It's nuanced.  A paradox.  If both things are true then how do you know when to help and when help is getting in the way?  I've put together a tool with questions that are useful to consider when discerning where to step in and when to step back.  Print it.  Use it. Share it.  Let's continue exploring this one together.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
— Maya Angelou