A colleague of mine on the leadership coaching staff at Stanford had a student who was wrestling with an important personal issue. I knew a dean who was well-positioned to be of assistance, and I offered to put her in touch with my colleague. I emailed the two of them and felt good that I’d been able to help.
Shortly afterward, though, my colleague called me, and I was stunned to realize that she was upset and angry with me for intervening. While I had thought that she had accepted my initial offer, she had actually said she’d think about it and would let me know if and when she wanted me to take action. She felt that by taking the initiative without her assent I had interfered with the work she’d been doing with the student and, far from helping, had potentially made the situation worse.
What are the various ways we can, with the best of intentions, inflict help?
The Right Help at the Wrong Time.This is what I provided to my colleague. The dean I knew was in a position to support my colleague and her student, but providing help before it had been asked for created confusion and frustration and was ultimately counterproductive. For help to truly be helpful, the recipients must be ready for it — and as helpers we need to assess that readiness accurately. It’s easy to misread potential openness for an actual invitation.
The Right Help, But Too Much Of It. Alternatively, we can offer help and it’s received with gratitude. But we may not know when to stop. The desire to help takes over, and we pass the point of diminishing returns and keep right on going. I’ve often made this mistake when providing coaching clients with readings intended to supplement our work together. My enthusiasm can lead me to send someone far more material than they have time to absorb, and they feel overwhelmed. I’ve learned that I help not only by providing access to material, but also by limiting that access and by gauging each client’s individual capacity. As helpers we need to be keenly attuned to recipients’ ability to make effective use of our help and to stop helping when it’s no longer helpful.
The Wrong Help. Someone wants our help, and we’re able to offer it at the right time. But as the situation evolves it becomes clear that what we’re offering isn’t actually what’s needed. This was the mistake I made with several teams of MBA students that I supervised in the first few years of my work at Stanford. I thought they needed help with tactical execution, but what they lacked was strategic guidance; to use Peter Drucker’s distinction, I was offering management when they needed leadership. Thankfully, in my second year I got some candid feedback that allowed me to change my approach. As helpers we may think we know what’s needed, but even—and perhaps especially—when we’re viewed as experts we need to access our ignorance and be open to the possibility that we may be wrong.
What motivates all this unhelpful help? Why do we step in when it’s not necessarily helpful? Two factors not only explain this dilemma but also suggest potential solutions.
The Relationship, and Our Role In It. First, in many cases the motive to inflict help is a function of the relationship, or, more precisely, our interpretation of our role in that relationship. If there’s a difference in status within the relationship, such as between a manager and a subordinate, in the senior role we may feel that our primary function is to offer help. But when we find ourselves repeatedly inflicting help, we need to step back and question how we’re interpreting our role in that relationship.
Perhaps we’re fulfilling the role in an outdated way that no longer reflects the state of the relationship or the capabilities of the other party. Perhaps we’re applying a set of archetypes to the relationship — such as expert/novice or guide/follower — that no longer fit (or never did.) While the desire to be of service is laudable, we need to check our assumptions about how and when we can best be of service in this particular role.
Emotion Regulation. Second, it’s essential to understand and regulate the emotions that underlie our helping impulse. Logical analysis can influence our behavior, but our actions inevitably have an emotional dimension, although at times these feelings may lie just beyond our conscious awareness. Comprehending the emotions that motivate our desire to help can allow us to (1) sense when they’re causing us to inflict help, (2) arrest our habitual helping responses, and (3) create opportunities to make different choices.
We’re driven to diminish our negative emotions and enhance our positive emotions, and helping relationships can trigger powerful feelings on both sides. When we feel the need to help we perceive a problem that we want to alleviate, and its persistence can trigger discomfort, anxiety, anger, and fear. The task here is to gain a greater sense of comfort with our discomfort, to simply notice these feelings and sit with them without being compelled to take action in order to soothe ourselves.
On the other side of the emotional spectrum, when we feel the need to help we perceive an opportunity to distinguish ourselves while being of service, and this can trigger excitement, enthusiasm, and even joy. The task here is to calm ourselves in the face of these stimulating emotions, to simply notice these feelings and, again, sit with them without being compelled to take action to maintain this pleasurable state.
As leaders, as colleagues, as friends, and as family members, we’re asked to help in almost every sphere of life. Those who feel, as I do, a powerful desire to be of service, may have chosen a profession that presents us with the opportunity to fulfill this drive on a daily basis. But being mindful of the difference between providing help and inflicting it is what allows us to truly make a difference.
This post first appeared at HBR.org. Inspired by Torbjörn Gyllebring, who used the phrase "inflicting help" in his response to a tweet of mine. Many thanks to Tim Sullivan for his ongoing guidance and encouragement.
Photo by Tawheed Manzoor. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.