The aroma of vegetable soup wafted up the stairs to my office. Moments later, my wife called, “Dinner’s ready!”
“Mmmmm … I love homemade soup,” I thought.
Rushing down the stairs and past the pantry, I spied a tube of crackers, grabbed them, and headed for the dining room.
My wife sat at the table, waiting for me, smiling. Her smile vanished as she saw the tube of crackers. “Oh, this isn’t good enough? I really tried to get everything you like. I even brought out the oyster crackers …”
Confused, I looked at her. Then, I looked at the table.
She had arranged a beautiful spread of crackers, sliced cheese, chips & dips, salsa, veggies and grilled sandwiches to go with our soup.
And there I stood, tube of crackers in hand, inflicting help.
Acting without asking
Inflicting help occurs when the helper acts in a way they feel as helpful but the recipient does not. It often stems from the helper not asking if, how or when someone would like to be helped.
Instead, the helper jumps in and acts without asking.
“But, I was only trying to help!”
I was trying to comfort her. “I didn’t know you had all this out. I smelled the soup, saw the crackers, and grabbed them to be helpful.”
We quickly sorted things out and went on to have a great meal together.
Looking back, it was an interesting interaction, and it holds some lessons for tech managers.
Because too often, well-meaning tech leaders inflict help on their teams. And when we realize what we’ve done, we might exclaim, “But, I was only trying to help!”
Step one — Stop and look
Inflicting help is almost always a result of misunderstanding the situation and assuming you know what is needed.
As soon as I entered the dining room, it was clear that my wife had put a lot of work into the meal. This wasn’t “just soup,” it was a feast.
I didn’t know this when I grabbed the crackers.
I didn’t know it because… I didn’t stop and look.
Had I sat down at the table first, I would have understood the situation and would never have grabbed the crackers.
However, it’s not only about understanding how the situation look on the surface; it’s about really understanding the situation and correctly interpreting the situation.
Remember, you never help “things,” you always help “people.”
And people assign meaning and interpretations to situations.
In this case, it wouldn’t have been enough to notice, “The table is filled with a lot of good food.”
The real interpretation was “My wife went out of her way to express her love for me.”
In that context, bringing crackers sent the message, “What you have done is not good enough.”
Step two — Ask and listen
Let’s imagine that I had sat down first and properly interpreted the situation. Then I could have said, “This is wonderful. Is there any way I can help?”
Now things get interesting.
I don’t know what she might have said. I might have heard:
- “No, everything is ready, let’s eat.”
- “Yes, would you mind grabbing the crackers?”
- “Yes, would you mind clearing the dishes afterwards?”
- “Yes, would you drive into town and buy a loaf of French bread?”
- “Yes, would you find us a movie to watch?”
The answer to that question may reveal what is most important to her at that moment.
Asking guarantees we won’t inflict help, because the other person has the opportunity to tell us what would be helpful.
Step three — Offer, decline, negotiate
Asking and listening gives me insight about what activity the other person feels would be helpful.
Then I have a decision to make:
- Decide the request is something I am able to do and offer to do it
- Decide the request is something I am unable to do and decline it
- Negotiate a third option
If she asked that I clear the dishes, and I’m able and willing to do so, I’ll acknowledge that and follow through.
If she asked that I drive into down, and I am not able to do that, I might decline. This might lead to a compromise.
If she asked that I find us a movie to watch, but I wanted to finish the series we were binge watching, I might negotiate. “How about we finish what we were watching last night?”
An example from (almost) real-life
Jim walks into your office. “I can’t get the Facebook authentication to work. Their docs suck. Plus, our firewall keeps blocking the request. I’ve already spent twice as much time on this as I planned.”
Without these three steps, you could easily inflict help. I’ve done it by saying…
- “Okay, I’m good at Facebook integrations. I’ll do it myself.”
- “Okay, Sue is good at that. I’ll send that project to her.”
- “Oh, let’s just cancel that feature then.”
Jim might well respond in a way which surprises me (because I was trying to be helpful!):
- “Forget it, I’ll figure it out.”
- “Don’t you trust me?”
- “I don’t need hand holding.”
Ad nauseam. There seems to be no end to the ways we can inflict help on others, all because we don’t stop, ask, listen, and offer.
Instead, if I ask Jim, “How would you like me to help?” you might hear:
- “Could you get us a few more days?”
- “Do you have a code sample I could review?”
- “Could you explain OAuth to me again?”
- “Could you cancel the project, and give me a month’s paid vacation?”
Some requests might appeal to you, and so you may agree. Other ideas may not, so you may decline or negotiate them.
Either way, you’ve stopped inflicting help, and begun discussing what kind of help would be actually helpful.
You’ve also set the expectation that you may help when asked but that you will not interfere in your employees’ work without their permission. This is particularly difficult for engineering managers and tech leads who believe they know the right answer.
Few things in life are as frustrating as watching someone struggle to solve a problem when you know the answer.
But, that’s the only way learning occurs.
Gold and Platinum
The Golden Rule states, “Treat others like you want to be treated.”
The Platinum Rule states, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”
Follow these guidelines and you’ll be less likely to inflict help and far more likely to be helpful when, if, and how your team needs it.
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