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.

The Art Of Delegating

All of us need to delegate at some point. Whether we're the person in charge or doing front-line work, delegating is a critical skill to be effective in the workplace. The difficulty is it requires the following four key behaviors:

  • Ability to instruct or teach
  • Patience
  • Allowing the other person to make mistakes
  • Letting go of an insatiable desire for control

Many of us have forgotten what's it's like to learn something new. Our own skills and competence came from others allowing us to step into new roles or responsibilities. We learn best by doing, and delegating to others gives them that opportunity to grow.

When delegating, keep in mind these three things:

  1. Does the delegatee understand what's expected of them? Don't assume. Ask!
  2. Are you prepared for the delegatee to make mistakes or come back with questions? If not, don't delegate the work. You're only setting them up for failure (in your eyes).
  3. Are you willing for this person to do the work using their style and method? How one performs the task is only one way it can be accomplished. Focus more on the outcome you're looking for, not the style or method someone uses to get there.

A Clash of Cultures

As we speak, technology is reinventing relationship. Instant messaging continues to find its way into the workplace, slowly replacing that outdated technology called “email”. It should be of no surprise why this is catching on, given IM is that perfect balance of achieving dialogue without having to deal with eye contact and other interpersonal annoyances that come with having to influence people sitting across a conference table. Discussion boards, blogs, social networks – the way we connect is changing faster than our ability to embrace any of these tools. And with a generation of up-and-coming leaders who grew up embracing electronic media, our views on how work gets done and the meaning of “relationship” is under attack.

We are living in a clash of cultures, those of us who have spent a lifetime developing face-to-face interpersonal skills, and the generation that is weaving emoticons (:-o zz) and instant messaging phrases (PCM or LOL) into our professional dialogue. How do we develop new definitions of relationship and trust that draws from our rich history of oral communication while taking into account the changing nature of written communication and how work gets done? Is this cultural dichotomy something we as seasoned leaders continue to resist or dismiss (“when I was young, we walked 12 miles to school and we liked it!”) or do we collectively learn how to be efficient and effective, while maintaining that personal connection with each other? If this isn’t a perfect storm for the quote by Alvin Toffler, I don’t know what is:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

At a deeper level, how does building trust fit into our 21st century organizations? Does it mean the same thing to future leaders of our institutions as it does to the generation who “walked the floors” and connected one-on-one with those doing the work?

These questions are at the heart of what we need to engage our current and future leaders in discussion around.