I’m going to be completely frank with you: it feels bizarre to even be writing this column.
Helpfulness is a quality that most of us value on some level. We appreciate when someone helps us, particularly in times of need. There is also an enormous feeling of satisfaction to be realized when you are able to uniquely offer help to someone else. The golden rule implicitly has, as a central concept, the idea of helping others (or at the very least, not treating them in a way that they don’t value).
So I was more than a little surprised to read this article. The idea that being helpful at work could undermine your job performance seems like a pretty astounding take. Moreover, the author appears to be serious about the notion. The essence of the article is that being helpful tends to be isolated to a few “extra milers” that go above and beyond. The problem of being helpful is largely a self-inflicted one. The solution can be found in setting appropriate boundaries and sticking to them.
Really? Is that the work place that we are trying to create for ourselves?
I take the underlying point of the article: disruption at work is a problem, and it’s getting worse. We have done that to ourselves, by being always on, responding quickly to email, not managing expectations and embracing tools like Slack, with its enduring anticipation of immediate gratification to every query, observation, discussion and prompt.
This is problematic if you are in a creative role. There are costs to context switching and not being able to focus. When you are distracted from doing something—especially work that is immersive and requires focus and attention to sustain—context switching means that it can genuinely take upwards of twenty minutes to re-engage with whatever it was you were working on. Given the level of distraction that exists in the typical office—let alone any working-from-home arrangement—and the challenge of getting productive, focused work done when needed is real.
That said, I have a major problem with the premise of this article. It conflates “being helpful,” “collaborative work” and “open to constant interruption.” The circles of those concepts absolutely can have some overlap in the Venn diagram of workplace relations, I concede. But those ideas do not necessarily have to go hand-in-hand.
There are some very real consequences if we take the sentiments expressed within the article to their logical conclusion. Blocking time, not responding to messages, ignoring email agendas, standing meetings, boundaries and saying “no” all have their place. There are also, to be perfectly blunt, instances where those behaviours create protective barriers for the individual at the expense of undermining collaboration, alienating colleagues and leaving less-experienced colleagues with real and meaningful questions ignored, sidelined and unsuccessful. Is that the workplace of the future that we are trying to create?
There is a notion at the beginning of the article that is specifically worth taking note of. “Long-tenured employees with deep institutional knowledge are leaned on by their peers for instructions or approval.” Absolutely, they are. This is exactly the point. It is, in fact, where senior and experienced employees can make the greatest difference: building up the skills, knowledge, competence and confidence of newer employees. Success in an organization requires reading the culture and knowing “how things get done around here.” There is no one better positioned than a seasoned hire to provide expert guidance in how to navigate the hierarchy, both formal or informal.
Discouraging this behaviour—and loading up senior employees with work that creates a disinclination to helpfulness and guidance—is exactly the problem that many organizations are creating for themselves. Yes, your internal experts can get complex and difficult work done, likely with an efficiency that is exponentially superior to anyone else in the organization. Yes, it will take far longer to get the same work done by more intermediate and junior resources. Absolutely yes, building training and support for those staff into the equation will require more overhead and take longer still. If you are trying to build for the future, that is an investment that you absolutely need to be making.
Most organizations have a knowledge management problem that has been a long time in the making, and is quickly looming on the horizon: their most senior, most knowledgeable and most capable staff are approaching the date of their retirement. When they leave the organization, so does their insight, their expertise and their talent. This is a problem partly borne of demographics, but exacerbated by shortcuts, greed, tapping expertise to maximize profitability and not investing in the long-term growth and success of the organization.
We know how to invest in knowledge transfer, skill building and growing the next generation, of course. The problem is that we just don’t do it. The urgency of getting the work done displaces the importance of helping future generations to thrive, succeed and build mastery in how things get done.
A case study in how to do this well was illustrated in the research I helped lead in the Value of Project Management research project. A (not North American) leader in delivering massive engineering project recognized that the insight and experience of their most seasoned and senior project managers was not getting passed on. Valuable insights in management, leadership, politics and engagement stood to be lost unless something changed. They invested in conducting a massive lessons learned exercise, where they captured the findings from some of their largest and most successful projects. This turned into a book, and an on-going training program to build up the skills and expertise of the following generations. In fact, the organization even shared their experiences with competitive firms, demonstrating leadership and working to build their industry as a whole.
Bottom line, there is inherent value to be realized and rewards to be reaped by encouraging more collaborative work, experience sharing, support and troubleshooting by senior resources. Discouraging it helps no one.
One of the most valuable roles that I ever played on a project was working with a municipality just a couple of years ago. I had been working with them for several years, which provided me with the benefit of a deep understanding of their culture. I also had strong relationships with senior management, and a high level of trust. That led me to be able to operate with a strong degree of authority and autonomy. That is unique amongst consultants, but it was invaluable within this role.
In this engagement, I was helping them to build a project management capability that would enable managers of an incredibly diverse array of projects to be successful. Following an in-depth assessment, we built a framework and toolset that could be adapted and scaled to just about every project, from social engagement and policy development projects with no budget to large-scale, multi-million-dollar infrastructure projects. The overall program included the development of process, templates, tools, training, organizational supports and collaborative support programs.
Just because a process is designed for a culture and can scale and adapt as needed doesn’t mean that everyone is able to do that successfully. Yes, training plays a part. Support, guidance and mentoring is even more important. While I had work to do, deliverables to produce, meetings to facilitate and training to deliver—and that work was the tangible stuff that most directly corresponded to what I was being paid to provide—that was a fraction of my overall value. The most important thing I did was to be present on a regular basis.
Being present wasn’t just being available for formal coaching or supporting teams in building deliverables or creating plans, however. A lot of the value of being available was quite literally being on the floor, answering questions as they arose and having conversations while I grabbed a coffee in the kitchen. For a significant period of this work, I literally could not walk from one end of the floor to another without being stopped by someone wanting to ask a question, share an insight or accomplishment, or get some feedback. There were times when one circumnavigation could take hours to complete, as I moved from cubicle to office to cubbyhole.
While my other work was important, this was the work that made a difference. It was solving problems, answering questions and providing guidance in real time, as it was needed. This was the effort that went the furthest in the organization building a culture that embraced project management. The process was nice, and the training was useful, but the help and support was what created the most meaning and had the greatest overall impact.
As I noted, there were still deliverables I was responsible for and scheduled sessions I needed to be present to attend. I managed all of this not first by scheduling blocks of time to do my work, but by planning the time that would be most helpful in simply being around and available to talk. I made sure I had chunks between meetings, not to catch up on email but to walk the floor and chat. Deliverables happened in and around that, where I had chunks to get them done. Sometimes that was while I was on site, but very often it was when I was away—in the evening, or between trips.
The challenge with all of this is that it doesn’t look productive. It doesn’t look valuable. You need a significant amount of confidence to look an executive in the eye and set the expectation that part of their consulting dollars are going to being available, walking the floor and having casual chats with staff as they get interrupted. It is far easier to get support for producing deliverables, facilitating workshops and delivering training. But the payoff for being available to simply help is exponentially more significant.
The act of being helpful means that people feel supported, they feel cared for, they are heard and they have the confidence in real time to know that they are moving in the right direction and making progress. Creating boundaries to prevent that from happening is about the most short-sighted thing that an organization could do.
Years ago, there was a phenomenon of “management by walking around;” it was suggested that supervisors and managers could better gauge progress and productivity by casually keeping an eye on their staff in more informal contexts. While the concept has largely fallen by the wayside, it may be due for a reinvention and repurposing. Rather than supervisors and managers, however—unless they are themselves truly expert—I would suggest that “helpfulness by walking around” would be a tremendous strategy for organizations to encourage their senior, seasoned experts to engage in.
Helpfulness is not unproductive, it is not overrated and it should not be a threat to job performance. It should be encouraged, supported and facilitated. Create spontaneous opportunities for expertise to get where it is needed, regardless of the mechanism involved in doing so. Actively encourage and support it, and stop trying to create artificial roadblocks to discourage conversations from happening. Make helpfulness a virtue, and you have the opportunity to help staff at all levels of the organization to thrive.