Everybody likes to be helpful. Helpfulness is an admirable trait. It’s nice when people put aside their own concerns for the wellbeing of somebody else. In the workplace however, there are situations where your team members may be too helpful for their own good.
Being helpful makes people feel good. When you’re helpful, people respond favourably because you’re assisting them in achieving their goals. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that by being too helpful, your team members aren’t achieving their own.
So what’s wrong with being helpful? Nothing in moderation. Everybody should help others at one time or another. But there is always a balance. It’s when you start being too helpful that problems can occur.
1. People who are too helpful blur role boundaries
It’s nice to have variety in your work. In fact, a job that has skill variety can be something that really engages people. Rather than do the same boring work all day, you get to do a variety of different things, using different skills.
The problem arises when team members start to take on work that is not really within their role. Maybe they are helping to organise meetings, create presentations or communicate with people on someone else’s behalf. They might even start writing documents that are the responsibility of somebody else.
Before you know it, the definition of what this helpful team member does is ambiguous. Now, everybody can plausibly ask them to help with similar work.
“I saw you helped Jake with that presentation. It was great, can you please take a look at mine too when you get the chance?”
If this helpfulness occurs for a long period, these extra helpful tasks can start to form part of somebody’s role, which was never the plan. It then becomes difficult to know who should be doing what, because stakeholders have been trained to believe that you’ll always be there to help.
2. People who are too helpful can become disengaged
At first, being helpful is fun. Oh, the look of joy on the faces as a team member offers to help out with that big report. Now, they are *always* helping with those big reports.
But that’s not what they signed up for, is it? You didn’t bring this person in to assist others with random tasks. They were employed for a specific purpose.
If the additional helpful work that is being performed strays too far from the original role definition, your team member is likely to become disengaged. They were meant to be applying their expertise in international tax regulation, but someone found out they do great powerpoint presentations. So now, that’s also what they do.
3. People who are too helpful stop others from learning
When others find out about your helpful team member, they’re going to be interested. Particularly those who want to minimise their own workload. Some people will try to offload tasks they should be doing themselves onto others who are too helpful.
This is often the result of #1, when role boundaries become blurry. Because now, people who ask the team member for help have plausible deniability.
“Oh, I thought that was part of her role, since she did that report for John.”
What then happens, is that some people don’t even do their own job any more. They offload the parts they don’t like, or aren’t good at, to the helpful people of the workplace. But if these people can’t even complete their own tasks, why are they employed in their role?
Instead, they should be learning the skills they need to perform their own roles. People who are too helpful may prevent this from happening. Now, you have a helpful team member who is a crutch, who everybody else starts to lean on.
4. People who are too helpful become overwhelmed
In many jobs and industries, there are times when a team’s workload may be a little less than usual. In that time, it’s not unusual for helpful people to lend a hand doing things they might not usually do. Many people go stir crazy when there isn’t enough to do at work, so it’s not surprising that they want to lend a hand.
The real trouble happens when the workload starts to pick up again. Now your helpful team member has their own job to do, and the work they took on before. In some cases, a helpful team member never wants to let anybody down. So they continue to shoulder the excessive work burden.
If this goes on for too long, there may be an eventual collapse. Or, there is #5.
5. People who are too helpful eventually leave others in the lurch
Your helpful team member has taken on too much. Some will collapse under the burden and may burn themselves out. Others will drop the “helpful” work like a hot potato and focus on their own tasks. Now, you have a potential team reputation problem.
“John’s team said they’d help with this, and now they’ve stopped doing it and it needs to be done by next week!”
This is obviously an issue because an offer of help has now been taken away. This can cause ill will and trust may be eroded between people and teams in this situation.
So what are the options? How can you be helpful sometimes, but not all the time?
Put boundaries on being helpful, to avoid falling into the “too helpful” trap
Unfortunately, you can’t just help everybody all the time. You need to set boundaries if your team is going to help people without being overwhelmed with work.
It sounds a little selfish, but unfortunately, your team were employed to perform their roles. If being too helpful gets in the way, then you are actually being unhelpful to your own team and colleagues, because you can’t fulfil your own role.
As you might expect, communication is the key to avoiding the pitfalls of being too helpful. Here are some things to try to avoid the problems:
- Make your helpfulness time-bound: There is nothing wrong with saying that Tom can help out until the end of the week. Unfortunately, after that, he needs to focus on his own work.
- Clearly scope your helpfulness: Limit your help to a specific set of tasks or deliverables. Avoid just “helping out”. Make it specific and measurable, so your team can get back to their own work when their done.
- Say “No” sometimes: Pushing back is a critical skill that is often underrated. You cannot just take on every piece of work that everybody throws at you. You need set boundaries and train your stakeholders that you won’t help them with everything.
We all like to be helpful. But being too helpful is likely to be decidedly unhelpful in the long term. Set boundaries on your helpfulness to avoid your team falling into the too helpful traps.