We all wanna help, don’t we?
That’s what I like to tell myself. Is that actually true? There are lots of examples of narcissists out there who don’t help anyone but themselves. Is this just one of those feel-good clichés we cling to?
I’m not talking about doing your job well. I’m talking about helping others at work when you don’t have to.
Here’s a study that got me thinking about this. In her illuminating Wall Street Journal “Mind and Matter” column, Susan Pinker describes research conducted by Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Washington (WSJ, 3/7/2020). Barragan tested 96 toddlers to see how likely they might be to help a needy stranger. You know – those impatient 2-year-olds who are inclined to kick, scream, and bite if they don’t get what they want!
The research. Each child met an adult who was sitting behind a desk. The desk was gated, and the toddler stayed on the other side of the gate with a parent nearby, to ensure the child would not feel threatened. The adult behind the desk selected a piece of freshly cut fruit which then suddenly slipped out of his hand and landed on a tray on the child’s side of the desk.
In 2 control groups, the adults reacted very differently to the loss of the fruit. The adult in the first group acted dismayed at the loss of the fruit, grasped the air unsuccessfully to get at the fruit, and displayed his desire to get the fruit back. The adult in the second group acted nonchalantly after the loss of the fruit.
The outcome. When faced with an adult who was clearly yearning to get the fruit back, 60% of the toddlers retrieved the fruit and promptly offered it to the adult. With the adult who did not seem to yearn for the fruit, only 4% did the same.
When faced with a clear need for help, the desire to help runs deep. It’s near primal. Even toddlers are wired to help.
We see it when a neighbor faces a sudden disaster, as evidenced during the tornadoes in Nashville last week. The outpouring of help was instant. I saw it on a flight from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale the other day. About half of the passengers came prepared with wipes to clean the surfaces in their seat area, as a means of protecting themselves against a coronavirus contamination. A woman in my row had a panicked look on her face. She had no wipes. Should she be wiping? A seatmate she did not know reached into his bag and offered some extra wipes he had with him.
Think, for a moment, about less extraordinary circumstances. Think of your own everyday behaviors at work. What are some ways in which you can be of help, every single day, beyond what your job requires you to do? And, conversely, what might be some helping instincts that may actually NOT be helpful?
1. Offer to help.
We ask if there’s anything we can do to help. We don’t impose help. We don’t force help.
Sometimes, it may be helpful to describe specific ways in which we can be of help. I recently curated a Pechakucha Performance event in Miami with 11 presenters. I approached my presenters with some “helping questions.” Would it be helpful to look at the slide deck together? Would it be helpful to have a quick run-through? Our helping questions may elicit a desire for help that has been heretofore dormant in the other person.
2. Extend networks.
One of the most potent ways of helping others is to connect them with someone else who might be able to help. When a colleague struggles with solving a problem and you know a colleague who has solved a similar problem in the past, offer to connect her with that colleague. When a colleague might benefit from a conversation with an expert outside of your company and you know just such an expert, offer to introduce him to this expert. My entire practice as an Executive Coach is predicated on the kindness of someone introducing someone else to me because s/he thinks I can help. Powerful.
Making an introduction is quick. It’s simple. And it strengthens the relationships of every party involved in the introduction. Triple win.
3. Be an ally.
A good half of my clients in Senior Executive roles are at times accused of not speaking up enough in Senior Leadership meetings. When we probe a little more deeply, these are the sort of comments I tend to hear: Well, someone already said what I was going to say. I don’t want to be redundant. I don’t want to take up unnecessary air time.
Someone has already made the point you wished to make? Terrific. Speak up and let the group know that you agree with what was just said. Support their point-of-view. Be an ally. An ally is one of the most influential roles we can play in any situation. And it’s a powerful way of being of help. Bingo.
4. Join communities of help.
I like to joke that I don’t do anything alone anymore. Yes, it’s a joke – and there’s a strong grain of truth in it. When I was about to launch my first business, Influens, I joined a Mastermind Group in Manhattan hosted by an organization called Small Business Strategy. I attribute much of the success of my firm to the wisdom, insight and guidance I received from my entrepreneur colleagues in that group. I now host Mastermind Groups for C-Suite executives, and I belong to a Mastermind Group comprised of top global coaches. I see it in both, all the time. Being in a community of help is an exponential success accelerator for everyone involved.
Let’s be clear. In a community of help, there is no other agenda but the desire to be of help and receive help. These are not networking communities or lead generators. There are no hidden agendas. There is only the shared purpose to help.
5. Ask for help.
If the need to offer help is primal – even if subverted in a few folks we know – the willingness to ask for help is sublimated in even more of us. We may feel that asking for help at work is a sign of weakness. It may show that we are less skilled, less certain than we pretend to be. It may tap into the part of us that feels a little like an impostor.
Got it. Consider this, however: When I ask you for help, I tap deeply into the part of you that wants to help others. I allow you a chance to act on your innermost instincts. Toddler, anyone? How selfish it would be to deprive you of the opportunity to be of help to me. I mean, really!
Helping at work does NOT mean I do your job for you. Does not mean I help for my own hidden EGO gratification. Doesn’t mean I enable you to stay less competent than you need to be. It doesn’t mean I rescue you.
So, help freely. Help when your help is wanted. And notice how in the act of helping, you help yourself, as well.
Wins all around.