“Oh, don’t mention it”: how to deal with helpful people

There are probably a few of them in your organisation, probably even in your immediate team. People who will always go the extra mile, help wherever they can, pick up your pieces when you’ve dropped them (and not mention that self-discipline problem you have that means you do this more often than you should). Most of the people I’ve ever met who’ve fitted this description had a similar signature phrase too: something like “Anytime – no problem” or “Hey, it’s ok: it’s what I’m here for.” But has it ever dawned on you that these charming beings could turn out to be a real problem. And that you might be the catalyst?

There’s a great post about this at Dan Rockwell’s “The Leadership Freak” site, called An Accidental User. Here’s Dan talking about when, for the first time, he called just such a person simply to ask how they were doing:

It surprised him. Every other time my number appeared on his caller ID, I asked for something. Right now, He’s ok with that, but I’m not. I don’t want to be an accidental user and abuser.

The trouble with generous, motivated people is you may mistakenly believe they don’t require encouragement. By the time they need encouragement, encouragement may not be enough.”

The real problem is in seven short words: “He’s ok with that, but I’m not”. Dan, being Dan (or being an inspirational version of Dan for our benefit, but let’s not rush to judgement), has recognised the problem has been – or could easily have become – him. He took a step back and remembered that his impact on the people he depends on was as important as having them available or getting whatever it was that he needed. Or even ‘needed’.

He also recognised something else important: that, as the one in the position of authority or power, his willing helper not only saw helping willingly as their part of the bargain but would quite possibly be reluctant to just say “no”. (Or perhaps something slightly less repeatable.) Some people find it hard to say no as they don’t like to refuse, or they genuinely want to help whenever they can. (I have a friend known to everyone as ‘the late Barbara’ as her days forever fill with little helpful errands for others; we’re not sure she’s aware just how frequently she is a martyr to her own generosity of spirit.)

Some people – often people who work for people who either find gratitude difficult or unnecessary, or who simply don’t notice that they’re taking other for granted on a regular basis – don’t say no as it could be confrontational, and could have unpleasant consequences. Not that it needs to go that far to become possibly a bad situation. (As a tangential but timely reminder on how important business and the economy is in our individual lives, The Guardian today published a list of the Top 100 paid-for magazines, July-December 2010. There’s only one ‘business’ magazine we cared about enough to pay for in the whole list: The Economist, which came it at a storming 55th. BBC Gardener’s World and Sainsbury’s Magazine comfortably outsold it. Saga Magazine came 5th.)

Sometimes answers don’t walk up, grab us by the lapels and stare us in the face: sometimes we have to ponder our reflection in the mirror – and to keep doing it till we’ve got bored with adjusting the lighting, checking our best profile, tweaking our hair. (And stop pretending you don’t: you’re among adults here.) It’s one reason that 360 degree feedback can be powerful and illuminating: the cover of anonymity allows the unspoken to surface, and for impressions that can’t otherwise be spoken to be voiced. Many leaders worry that there’s something intangible that needs to be addressed – the proverbial elephant in the room. Carefully facilitated 360 degree feedback can be a kinder way of realising that the face in the mirror is grey, wrinkly and has large ears – far better that than the rather less mediated words of the patient person who has finally reached the point where “encouragement may not be enough”.

It’s also a kinder way of addressing a problem that’s as potentially costly as hubris (something we’ve scrutinised before) – solipsism. The accidental user – and their no-so accidental close relative – are, were they but aware of it, dabbling in a self-centred view of the universe. There’s a fine (if long) article by Antonio Marchesi at the Transforming Organizations from the Inside blog on the topic, from which I could snip many quotes, so try the following and then try the whole piece if you’re more intrigued:

Several years ago my scholarly interests in leadership studies were piqued while working at a college wherein the president persistently offered public praise for the fact that the organization was on the move as a result of a spike in attendance and the expansion of the physical campus. While brick and mortar were transformed into numerous buildings, many lives were adversely effected – both students and faculty. The alternate universe in which the president resided did not acknowledge the alarmingly low faculty morale or high rate of student attrition. Divergent viewpoints offered in the spirit of sincerity and collegiality were quickly extinguished and categorized as insubordination. Decisions were made on a regular basis that diminished the value of human capital and perpetuated a crippling cynicism and blatant distrust within the culture. Students and staff members were reluctant to express concerns for fear of losing scholarships or jobs.”

That’s a dramatic example, of course. It couldn’t possibly happen to you, right? Probably not, but a little self-checking, and a little self-questioning occasionally might be healthy. Are you forgetting to take an interest in the people around you? Assuming they’ll drop everything and help because you’ve simply got to have whatever it is? If it’s gone that far but no further, you’re being rude and insensitive. You’re also not leading: you’re just demanding. (Remember our comments on Michael Bywater’s book, Big Babies? While you’re near the mirror, why not experiment with some reflective learning?)

If it’s got to the point where not only do you not acknowledge, enquire of and care about those you’re extracting favours from, but you’ve started to surround yourself exclusively with those who don’t challenge, or who give without comment or suggestion, it’s time to pause for review. There’s a strong chance that your recruitment policy hasn’t actually struck a rich seam of workplace angels whose fluttering wings will forever carry you aloft to not just safety but eternal praise. You could be actively covering up another failing. There’s a passage in David Eagleman’s delightful book, Sum (which presents forty short tales each describing a different possible version of the afterlife), where God has – in Her wisdom –realized that it is only our individual personal or cultural blinkers that prevent us from working out the whole truth for ourselves. Realising that She is only a pointed question or two away from being ‘rumbled’, her priorities become a little distorted:

If you assumed that God is fond of those who hold loyally to their religions, you were right – but probably for the wrong reasons. She likes them only because they are intellectually nonadventurous and will be sure to get the answer just a bit wrong.”

You may be forever changing the case, believing that one more change will finally resolve all those issue you’re grappling with every day – and all the while failing to spot the one constant. By this point, you could actually be having a positively unhealthy relationship with your mirror – and failing to see what it’s in it. (You are also, in the words of Seth Godin, ‘shaving the bear’: see one of our earlier Crackers posts.)

Leave an elephant in the corner for too long and there will be a few other inevitabilities. Elephants being what they are, you might find that even your cleaner no longer wants to catch your eye …

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