Many helpful people thoughtlessly rescue others from their predicaments, self-imposed or not. Dysfunctional helping, especially for most team members, happens out of habit, training, or whatever you want to call it. If we don’t “help” others, we feel incompetent or irresponsible, like we’re not a team player. But this helping trap quickly has us signing up as a team mediator instead of a team leader. Yes, there is a difference.
A mediator is the go-between (untrainable). The leader is the spearhead (trainable). The mediator is the team’s voice with the boss that quickly leads you from being a valued employee for your insight, to being a cheerleader for the team – and bosses don’t pay for cheerleaders unless they own a football team. As the natural person who connects the team and the boss, the goal is to be a leader, not a mediator.
The first key to getting out of the habit of dysfunctional helping is to start with yourself. You need to stop going in and taking the bullet for the team because they are too scared to handle something on their own. And stop letting the boss involve you in private discussions about issues with other team members. As team leader (former dysfunctional helper extraordinaire) you need to get both of them in the room. Don’t take sides. Stop, facilitate and restart.
Dysfunctional helping sounds like: “No, team member didn’t say she doesn’t want to help answer the phones, she said she is behind in her work because she keeps getting interrupted with the phones.” Leading sounds like; “I’m uncertain each of you are in the same perspective. Let’s use the last 10 minutes of our team meeting tomorrow to flesh this out; I will facilitate the conversation so everyone gets on the same page and we have agreement in regards to what’s next. I will let everyone know about this addition to the agenda tomorrow.” Look at THAT! In no way were you taking the responsibility to fix, do or solve anything. You simply identified the potential of a breakdown in communication and will get everyone in the same room to identify the next actions. You’re not taking on any ownership to fix, help or solve. As a leader you are simply taking a stand for clarification and next actions. This is training and “management” in its finest form. (Sneaky, huh?)
Your job as a leader (vs. dysfunctional helper) is to not let the POINT of the conversation get lost in the boss-speak and team-speak. A lot of this is done by asking questions, not making statements or proposing solutions. You’re teaching THEM to propose the solutions. And the bonus is, your job is not to take sides. Even if you do have an opinion, as a leader it’s not your job to sway the outcome, it’s to facilitate. If you translate and ask enough questions until everyone sees and understands the issue, then everyone can participate in coming up with a solution and an agreement.
I actually like to clarify my role as translator by beginning the meeting with “I am here to facilitate, so if I ask you questions I am not agreeing with you or “questioning” you – I am clarifying and trying to get the facts without emotions so we can move forward with agreement and next actions.”
Time and again we see team and bosses break trust with a coworker out of best intentions. We aren’t talking about gossip; everyone knows that’s so 90210, though that doesn’t seem to stop it. We are talking about sharing private information with the best of intentions. Like when the boss is ranting about his assistant’s performance and you know she is having marital problems, so you allude to that with the boss so she isn’t misjudged. You just broke trust. You either need to a) ask (don’t tell) the boss, “That’s odd, isn’t your assistant very dependable and has things done early?” When he says yes, suggest he take her for lunch or coffee and provide a safe place to share whether something is wrong. Ask him, “Isn’t something usually wrong when a great employee suddenly has performance issues?”
Or, rather than breaking trust with the employee, ask, “Do you think your marital problems are impacting your job at all? Do you think you should at least tell the boss you are having personal problems, even if you don’t tell him what, so he doesn’t think you are just slacking off or something?”
You are also, with this step, reinforcing teaching your team to fish.
Many dysfunctional helpers believe they have to constantly deliver, fix and solve in order for others to see their worth/value. But here’s the truth: everybody loses if everybody is dependent on the firm’s dysfunctional helper. (And we all have at least one.) As the firm grows and you “move on up” and are less and less accessible, when you do come up for air you will find you have all this “drama” to fix. And that is when resentment sets in. You start off as the “go-to person,” the “champion” and “cheerleader” for the team in the beginning, but adding just one more person to the team can put you over the edge.
As helpers, our intentions are always for the good of the team, but there is such a difference between helping and leading. You should be teaching to fish vs. handing out endless fish. And if that doesn’t get you to shift your perspective and interaction with being the firm’s mother hen, think of this: Do you truly believe you personally can fight battles for others without creating more chaos? I bet if you look hard enough, evidence would show you that your past efforts in tirelessly helping did not work, once you stepped away.
Champions of your continued success,
Molly and Laney