Managing as Helping

Are you a manager, or maybe an informal leader with implicit influence and responsibility? Have you considered how you think about your role? Have you considered thinking about yourself as a helper?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re working in a knowledge-based organization: an enterprise that builds its success on being able to convert human motivation into creative ideas, and then use the best of those ideas to develop useful products and services.

Knowledge-based organizations are hard to manage, because people are hard to manage. Highly educated and creative people might be especially hard to manage, because they have high expectations when it comes to being managed in the right way.

How you see the role of management is going to be a major factor in deciding whether you end up managing in a way that’s helpful to people in your organization or not.

If there’s one thing the modern organization does not have room for, it’s unhelpful people. We may have room for freeloaders (you’ve been one too, at times in your life), assholes (you’ve been there too, especially if you think you’ve never been seen as one), and incompetents (in some things you should be incompetent, otherwise you’re just cruising).

However, I don’t think we have room for unhelpful people. Success as an organizations comes from creating a web of interactions – also known as helping each other. Here are some telltale signs that might indicate that you are currently not as helpful as you could be:

  • When somebody asks for help, you don’t help them. Well. That one’s pretty obvious I guess. Just remember that’s its easy to fool yourself. You may be presenting yourself with solid reasons why not helping is the right thing to do. Look closely at those reasons, and remember that there is more than one way to help. To begin with, helping does not necessarily mean taking on a task someone else should rightfully do – nor does it mean giving direct answers. Which takes us to point number two:
  • You give help by taking over the task completely, thereby robbing your colleague from the opportunity to learn to do the task. In knowledge organizations, eliminating learning is a cardinal sin. Therefore, this kind of helping isn’t very helpful.
  • You consider some tasks to be beneath you. Maybe you think that you no longer have to visit the development teams. After all, you paid your dues long ago, and now you have team leads or scrum masters or agile coaches or whatever working with the teams. They’re doing the floor work and report to you every now and then. But how can you possibly claim to manage work that you are so separated from? Don’t be afraid to go out there. Look at what’s really happening and learn, learn, learn. Then provide help.
  • You listen to people’s requests for help, then say: “I’m sure you can figure out a way to solve it”. Of course they can – but they came to you asking for help. Asking for help is not an easy thing to do. It puts you in a vulnerable position (which is why those who most need help may be least likely to ask for it). When somebody comes to you and asks for your help, you should see that as a sign of trust being extended. This is the moment when you can truly make a difference. Don’t throw that away.
  • You inflict help where help is not asked for. That’s not helpful, and will lead to resentment. You can’t help someone who does not want to be helped. I remember discussing this perspective on helping with a group that included a social worker. She was offended by the suggestion that help must be wanted. In her line of work, she said, help often had to forced upon people who aren’t asking for it, like addicts for example. In the end, someone asked her if she had ever had long-term success in helping an addict that didn’t want to go clean. She looked sad, sighed, and said no.
  • You don’t ask for help. As a manager or informal leader, your behavior sets the tone. You are a role model. If you are not able to ask for help when you really need it, why do you think others should have that ability? But wait, you might be thinking, what if I simply don’t need help? If you think that, then you’re beyond what I can help you with through a text like this. All I can say is this: what on Earth makes you think you don’t need help?

If you want to learn more about managing as helping, my recommendation is that you buy and study Ed Schein’s book “Helping”. It’s written in very plain and understandable language. Don’t be fooled into thinking that makes the topic easy. Helping is really hard work – but it’s also very rewarding.

Published by Tobias Fors

I'm a software management consultant. I help other people succeed with software development. In my work, I help teams and organizations be more effective and ship software.