As thoughtful leaders, there is no doubt that we want to be helpful for our people. That means it’s critical that we realise exactly what helpful leadership is, and what it isn’t.
But it’s not as simple as all that, because sometimes what feels helpful to us isn’t really helping.
In this post, I’m going to share a few common examples of what seems like helpful leadership, which might actually be hurting your team.
Why Do Leaders Fall Into This Helpful Leadership Trap?
As part of my consulting work, I run PRINT Workshops to help teams understand each other better, and work better together.
One of the common PRINT motivators that I come across is the one titled “To be needed and appreciated”. Leaders who fit this profile are motivated by helping, supporting and coaching others to improve.
This can obviously be a great trait for leaders, because it helps their people develop and grow. In turn, these leaders gain a lot of satisfaction from seeing their people flourish.
However, this can go too far. When we go into super-helpful mode, we can find ourselves helping even when it’s not wanted or needed. Or taking actions that actually hinder the growth of our people, rather than nourishing it.
Like a plant, our people need sun. But not too much sun.
Plants need water, too. But sometimes you can give them too much water, and they’ll die.
The trick is to find the right balance for the people you’re leading, and unfortunately, it’s not a “one size fits all” solution. Some people need more sun, and more water than others.
But wait, I’m getting confused. It’s not about plants – we were talking about your people.
The point is, helpful leadership can go too far. So let’s look at some common situations where I see this happen.
1. Taking On the Work of Your People
It’s common for our people to get busy sometimes, when they need a helping hand. I’ve seen many situations where a leader will offer to help out in times of stress, taking some of the load off a frazzled team member.
I don’t feel that this act of helpful leadership is altogether a bad thing.
It demonstrates that the leader is willing to do what it takes for the good of the team, and is not “above” doing the real work.
“Sweeping the Sheds” Can Be Good Leadership
I read a book recently called “Legacy”, which is all about the culture transformation of the successful New Zealand Rugby team, the All Blacks. In the book, the author speaks of the concept of “sweeping the sheds”.
That is, even the most senior, superstar players would spend time after the game sweeping the changing room floor, instead of leaving it to the cleaners or perhaps the more junior players.
This shows a commitment to the team and demonstrates that nobody is bigger than the team itself.
So in short, helping your team members out with a tough workload can be a sign of real commitment to the team.
Covering Up Systemic Workload Issues Is Not Helpful Leadership
The real issues start to occur when there is a systemic workload problem. Team members are constantly overwhelmed, so the leader is compelled to step in and help, time and time again.
When this becomes a recurring pattern, this is not helpful leadership.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
This type of recurring helpfulness can cover up the workload problems, helping the team limp along without addressing the real issues.
Nobody outside the team sees the problem, because the work is still being completed. But the leader is distracted, losing focus on their leadership role while they help out their stressed-out team member.
In this situation, leaders are covering up the real issue, when they should be having one (or several) difficult conversations with key stakeholders to either:
- Gain more capacity (resources) in the team; or
- Prevent the overwhelming workload by focusing on what’s really important, and ditching the rest.
What is more helpful? Addressing the symptom, or the root cause?
2. Fixing Issues for Your People
Another common situation I observe happens when leaders step in to fix issues on behalf of their team members.
It’s not hard to see why this can become a big problem.
Firstly, team members become accustomed to somebody else fixing their problems, meaning that next time, they’ll potentially put in less effort. After all, why bother, when someone else will do it for you?
Next, team members stop thinking for themselves. If you want your people to be more proactive, this act of helpful leadership can be a killer. In effect, you are deskilling your people, because they stop trying to solve their own problems.
And lastly, on a similar theme to #1, the leader is covering up a lack of skills or experience in the team, by fixing the problem themselves.
All of this makes it very difficult to ask your own boss for more resources or training, because they may not even notice that there is an issue.
The next time you feel like jumping in like the knight in shining armour to help your team, it might be worth taking a step back instead.
Coaching them on how they might proceed may be a better approach than just doing it yourself.
3. Being Too Available For Your People
Ever felt compelled to sit in on a meeting to provide support to a team member? What about always maintaining an “open door policy” where they can come and access you whenever they want?
Well, you’re not alone. And on the surface, these seem like nice helpful leadership actions to take.
Once again, the problem occurs when your people start to treat you like a crutch.
If you sit in on a meeting where you actually want a team member to take charge and accountability, you might find them deferring to you as the more senior person in the room.
Sometimes, you’ve got to kick your people out of the nest and watch them fly.
I’ve seen countless examples of leaders complaining that their people won’t take accountability and ownership, while at the same time they maintain close oversight and watchfulness over what the team member is doing.
If you want people to take ownership, consider stepping back a little and giving them room.
You might find that over time, they start to realise “Hey, nobody is going to step up for me… I’d better come to the party!”
What to Show Helpful Leadership? Consider Showing Restraint
Sometimes helpful leadership is about stepping back, showing restraint and taking more passive action.
Resisting the temptation to solve problems, save the day and fight other people’s battles can be hard, and it might take time to retrain yourself from your normal behaviour.
It’s worth asking yourself the question: “Is this really helping?”
And is the helpful behaviour designed for you to feel good? Or to help others succeed?
You might also consider having a conversation with your people about what you’re trying to achieve, by stepping back, by being less available and being less “helpful”.
This way, they know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and not just thinking that you’re one of those bad bosses they read about on social media.
It’s time to start practicing the long lost art of helping without helping.
Have you ever fallen into this helpful leadership trap? What happened and how did you manage to fix it? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!