How Not to Help

Most problems I see in the workplace are generated by three things:

1. Direct meddling
2. Gossiping
3. Indirect meddling, i.e., sitting in judgment

meddle—v. Interfere in something that is not one’s concern.

It’s obvious why direct meddling would be a problem. No one wants to be told how to do their job, even if (and this is the funny part) the person telling you is your boss.

It’s obvious, too why gossiping about how others do their work would be a problem. You’re not only meddling; you’re recruiting others to join the team.

But indirect meddling can be equally destructive. Just because you don’t say anything out loud doesn’t mean your message isn’t being delivered. Non-verbal communication is stronger than verbal. If you doubt this, think of how teenagers and moms communicate. Both can speak volumes with just one look.

When we put ourselves in a position to judge, we generally think we know better than the other person. Rarely do we question whether or not it’s true.

Just because someone isn’t doing a task the way you would, does not mean they’re doing it ineffectively. When we try and force our will on another it can only lead to trouble. (Trust me I know this from direct experience. I’m sure my daughters and some of my friends will forward this column back to me. LOL.)

It’s actually amusing when our brilliant advice is rejected and we respond by being hurt, “I was only trying to help,” we say and then we sulk.

Are we really only trying to help or are we showing off? When someone ignores your advice, if your response is to be hurt or angry, chances are it’s your ego at play, not your benevolence.

Getting along in the workplace (and at home) would go much more smoothly if we did one simple thing—honor each other’s expertise. Allow the person who is tasked with doing something to do it, unburdened by unsolicited (and usually unwelcomed) advice from you.

“But,” you protest, “I really can make it easier for them!”

So what? If your meddling makes them uncomfortable or resentful, what is served? Chances are it’s your ego.

I’m not saying don’t offer. People often do want our help. Don’t, however do it by asking the usual, “Can I help?” This puts the other person in the position of having to reject your gesture. If instead you say, “Let me know if you need any help with that,” it leaves the choice up to them. The difficult part is when they decide to forge ahead without us. I have literally had to bite my lip to keep from pointing out how someone could do a task better. Or sometimes I whip off an email with all my good ideas. This, by the way, is where having a 5-10 minute delay on your email “sends” comes in handy. If you hit “send” and then realize you’ve given unsolicited advice, you can fish it out of your “outbox” before the damage is done.

The problem with meddling is that it is interpreted in a variety of ways. The person may think you’re saying, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” or “I’m smarter than you,” or even (and this does real damage), “You’re incapable of figuring it out.” Many of us routinely do this when interacting with our loved ones at home. It only follows that we would do the same at work.

So what if you’re the boss and it’s your job to develop this person? Here is how to honor their developing expertise. Describe for your employee the end result you seek and then say, “Walk me through how you would approach this task so I can be sure I’ve given you all the information you need.” And then stop talking and listen. If they tell you an approach you think will work, give them your blessing to move ahead. If some tweaking needs to be done you can say, “I’m not sure about this aspect of your plan—are there other ways that might work?”

Honor people’s expertise and your relationships (at work and at home) will flourish!

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Suzanne - October 2, 2009

Thanks Silver! I tend to be a very systems oriented person, so when I see a person wasting time doing it "their" way or in a way that goes against my "proven system" I tend to set them straight. Your words are a true gift for me today. My "my way or the highway" mentality not only stunts others, but it actually keeps me from opening my eyes to other possibilities as well.

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