Stop Doing and Start Helping!

There is nothing more arrogant than walking into an organization, assessing a people or process issue and believing you can single-handedly create a permanent solution. The failure in most organizational projects is the presumption made about the giver and receiver relationship, the giver being those helping with the change and the receiver, those inheriting the change. The three most important presumptions are:

  1. The receiver is asking for the specific advice given
  2. The receiver is open to the advice, diagnosis or solution offered
  3. The giver understands enough of the problem to give this advice

These may seem like fair presumptions but more often than not, advice is given on incomplete information and both sides do not have a shared view of the problem. The problem doesn't get fixed, the recipient doesn't own the solution and the blame game for a less than satisfactory solution takes center stage. Sound familiar?

The Missing Piece

The first thing to recognize is the difference between advice and help.

When I consult with a surgeon, I'm looking for advice, a diagnosis and for that person to take care of the problem. Accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects - these roles are structured around evaluating a situation, applying expertise and doing the work. The person is the means to the solution.

Building a high-performing workforce is different. True success comes down to behavior change.  Positive attitude, teamwork, trust, practice - these skills are the cornerstones of an effective workforce. You can't talk someone into having a good attitude, exhibiting teamwork or being willing to make mistakes as a way to develop skills - they must want it themselves and be willing to do what it takes to get there.

But it's so much easier to just give advice and then walk away, you say.

Projects involving people that end up being perceived as unsuccessful stem from an overemphasis of trying to solve their "problem" versus looking for ways to help them help themselves.  At the heart of making positive change stick is asking this question:

"If diagnosing and advising only perpetuates a dependency and lack of self-reliance, how can you help the group take greater responsibility for their problems and solutions?" Focus on ways to get the groups to practice and immerse themselves in the behaviors that will build their confidence to do the work on their own.  Stop doing it for them.

Yes, being an expert is useful but don't confuse expertise with being helpful. Expertise doesn't changes behavior. To get people acclimated to a new way of doing something, you must ask deeper questions about how they learn, retain information and are able to repeat this behavior on their own. Whether you're the sponsor, manager, consultant or colleague, step back and find ways to allow individuals and groups to do for themselves, versus being so quick to solve their problem. Only then will they be able to run with the ball in a self-reliant way.

A great book that deconstructs the "helping relationship" is Edgar Schein's book "Process Consultation Revisited - Building the Helping Relationship". This book single-handedly helped me reshape how to think about consulting and make sure the responsibility for change lies with those needing to live with the change.