You are at work making slow but steady progress on an important task. Your boss, Alex, watches you for a minute, then walks up and says, “Let me help you with that.” Alex takes over the task and completes it for you. Rather than feeling grateful, you feel disappointed and demoralized. You are disappointed because you were looking forward to figuring out how to do the task and showing Alex that you are a good employee. You are demoralized that Alex thought so little of your capabilities that you couldn’t be trusted to finish the task yourself. One thing you did learn is that unhelpful help from your supervisor isn’t helpful.
Unhelpful help is the focus of research conducted by doctoral candidate Cheryl Gray and colleagues at the University of South Florida. Recently Cheryl spoke with Ben Baran and Chris Everett of the Indigo Podcast about unhelpful help, what it is and what to do about it. Listen to their conversation here.
Unhelpful Help from Your Supervisor Isn’t Helpful
Unhelpful help occurs when a well-intentioned supervisor or other person in your life tries to help you but does it in a way that is unhelpful or is even harmful. In her first study on the topic, Cheryl asked more than 100 employees about their experiences with unhelpful help. That study and studies to follow identified several forms of unhelpful help including:
- Critical Support. Providing support in a way that makes the person feel attacked or incompetent. This can happen when overdoing the feedback that you give someone.
- Imposing Support. This is what Alex did—just took over the task without being asked.
- Undependable Support. Helping someone with a task but doing it poorly.
- Short-sighted Support. Doing a task for someone without teaching them how to do it. Having someone watch you do something is not as helpful as instructing them as they do the task themselves.
As Cheryl explains, receiving unhelpful help can be stressful for the employee. It can have the same bad effects on employees as having an abusive or toxic supervisor. That includes burnout, negative feelings such as frustration, and reduced confidence.
How To Be a Better Helper
In the podcast Cheryl provides specific advice about how to avoid unhelpful help. These dos and don’ts depend on the type of unhelpful support you provide. For example,
- To avoid critical support, do not give too much feedback at once. Focus on a few key points where someone needs improvement. This was the advice given about performance appraisal reviews in Herb Meyer’s classic Harvard Business Review paper Split Roles in Performance Appraisal.
- Seek feedback when you provide support to be sure it was helpful. Asking questions such as “Was that clear?” enables the employee to get clarification.
- Ask before providing help rather than being like Alex and just imposing it.
The first step in providing helpful help is to be aware of the pitfalls of unhelpful help. Cheryl’s podcast is a good place to start as she explains what it is and how to avoid it.
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