Do you get road rage? Come on….admit it. ‘Overly helpful’ drivers sometime frustrate you, don't they? It’s a bit cheeky of me to be saying this, because my husband is often one of them. But you know, those people who will hold up the flow of traffic to give way to the one car turning right, who’s not paying attention, so everyone on the road comes to a standstill? Then everything happens at once: the ‘nice’ person gives up and starts moving forward again, at the same time the other person wakes up and realises they have a gap in the traffic…then hesitation and brake pumping proceed. Argh! My blood pressure is rising just writing this!
This happened to me twice last week and on one occasion resulted in the ‘overly helpful driver’ stuck in the intersection at a red light across the pedestrian strip. Not only had this disrupted the flow of traffic (me and others behind me were left on the wrong side of the traffic light), but it led to a really heated and quite aggressive shouting match between the driver and a pedestrian.
I reflected on the craziness of this situation - the driver in front of me simply thought he was being helpful by stopping to let a car turn right. But he waited too long, which resulted in frustration for the cars behind him (e.g. me) who also missed the green traffic light, him being stuck in the intersection across a pedestrian strip, which is awkward anyway, and then the verbal abuse between him and the irritated pedestrian. All because he wanted to help.
When intent doesn’t drive the outcome you want
Quite often, leaders find themselves in a similar situation to this at work. They step in and 'help out' their team and sometimes all it does is cause disruption and discontent. And it’s tricky, because just like giving way on the roads is supposed to increase and balance the flow of traffic, helping your team should also make things easier. However, this isn’t always the case.
‘Help’ is in the eye of the beholder
Consider these 3 scenarios:
As the leader, you can see your team actively working to resolve an issue. This is an issue you have seen and experienced previously, and you can see that the approach your team is taking it isn’t the most efficient and will unlikely produce the right result. If you step in, you’ll likely save them time and angst…and several review points that you will inevitably raise.
Your direct report has a meeting with your boss to provide her with a project update. Your calendar frees up last minute and you can now attend that meeting, so you approach your direct report and let them know that you will be there and can do the update with you.
You’re in a good rhythm with your team where you’re pretty hands on with them, but it’s okay because your workload allows it and you enjoy getting into the detail. However, you’re suddenly pulled onto a big project where you have very little time with your team. Your team quickly start to struggle, and performance and timeliness drops. You find yourself very quickly in chaos, trying to deal with the demands of the high profile project and helping your team do their work.
In each of these scenarios, your intent is good: you want to help. But the outcome can less desirable.
As leaders, we often do this because we think it will be faster to get a job done. But we must recognise that it might be in the short term, but in the long run, it never is. And from a risk perspective, it is important to recognise that by stepping in (for example, to complete a spreadsheet or presentation that your team is supposed to do), you’re eliminating a key review step - i.e. yours - which ultimately increases risk and reduces the effectiveness of your overall control environment.
Let’s consider how each of the above scenarios may be interpreted by your team:
‘Why doesn’t he let us work through this? We’re trying to come up with a better way of doing it that’s more efficient in the long run.'
‘Gosh, he’s just taken away from me this great opportunity to present to the CFO. Giving her that update would have been really good for my profile in the organisation.'
‘We can’t do this without our boss.'
In other words, your ‘helping’ them could actually be holding them back. Which ultimately holds you back.
What to do
It’s about expectations, timing and clarity. If we can set expectations up front about what’s going on, who’s doing it and by when, then that goes a long way. If we can be clear about decision points, escalation channels, and where (and when) to go for guidance, then again, that’s helpful. Ultimately, if we can provide the teams with guidance and support that will set them up for improvement in the long term, that’s the game changer.
Have a chat with your teams about the type of ‘help’ they want from you, when they want it and how it might look like in practice. Make sure everyone is clear on the approach and how that may change during different circumstances (eg during crunch times).
Their (long term) success is your success.
Would love to hear how you go…