Thursday, July 21, 2011

Giving or asking for help

What does it mean to offer help to a coworker, subordinate, or superior?  In the June issue of ISHN, James Leemann has a column that takes a very interesting perspective.  He explains that it is a lot more complex than it seems, citing some extensive work in a new book by Edgar Schein.   But rather than have you read the article or the book, here is what you need to know.

The first thing is that it is a two way human connection.  It is not just one person asking for help and the other one giving an answer.  It is a reciprocal process that must build a relationship between receiver and giver.  The way the help is provided has to match the way the receiver wants to be helped.  He describes three ways to give help, all of which I have seen many times while consulting in a variety of workplaces. 

  • The doctor diagnoses the problem, determines the treatment, and tells the receiver what to do. This is the most authoritative mode of helping.  It works best when there is a clear power distance between the help giver and receiver. 
  • The expert gives the person all of the information needed to make a decision, but leaves the decision up to him/her.  This leaves some flexibility with the recipient.  It helps them feel more in control of the process and less dependent.
  • The consultant teaching the recipient how to decide and lets them go through most of the process on their own.  This gives the most freedom and authority to the recipient.  It is best when helper wants to empower the receiver.

There are many things that can go wrong in their process, either because of the helper or because of the receiver.  For example, the helper:
  • Gives advice before the receiver is ready.  As you may have personally experienced, when you don’t want help, you throw up a barrier and resist it.
  • Uses a more authoritative helping style than is wanted by the recipient.  If someone is looking for some insight into the process (i.e. a consultant), being an expert or doctor may not be welcome.
  • Uses a less authoritative helping style than is wanted by the recipient.  If someone is looking for an answer, they may feel like they were left hanging if the helper just gives them some insight and leaves the decision up to them.
  • Takes control of the situation and makes the recipient feel out of the loop or dependent.
  • Doesn’t take the time to understand the problem before offering help.  In this case, the method may be fine, but the help is useless.
On the other hand, the recipient can also hurt the relationship.  He/she can:
  • Not trust the person giving help and disregard the information provided.
  • Seek reassurance rather than real help.  In this case the recipient will ignore the actual advice/help.
  • Become defensive if the help is not what was expected. 

So the next time you are asking for help or offering help, think about the type of help that is needed (doctor, expert, or consultant) and make sure that there is enough mutual trust and understanding of the problem before you get started.

Create positive expectations and the team will excel

An article in the June ISHN talks about the power of expectations.  In a column by John Kello, he talks about several studies that sound like valid research, but doesn’t cite the research specifically.  But the results coincide with others that I have read.  This research looked at workplace teams and how they perform.  The workers are randomly assigned to a team.  They both do a baseline task and have about equal levels of performance.  Then one group is given a “positive spin.”  They are told that the first task was just a warm up and they will probably do better the second time.  The other group is given a “negative spin.” They are told that they may be tired, so their performance the second time may not be as good as the first time.  Other than the spin, both groups are identical.

But guess what happens?  The team that expects to do better the second time really does better.  And the team that expects to do worse really does worse. So there is a huge margin between the performance of the positive group and the negative one. 

This has some great insights for any team leader.  Give your team positive expectations and they will perform better.  A positive coaching style is much better than a negative coaching style.  I have seen the same results with elementary school teachers before standardized tests, sports coaches, and random lab experiments.  And so on and so on.

I would love to hear your own stories either supporting or contradicting this idea.  Feel free to put them in the comments.