What To Do When Your Help Isn’t Helping

“Hello! I’m here to help!”

So many of us (consultants, leaders, individual contributors) are trying to “help” in our organizations. Helping may take on many forms. It may look like a new initiative, advice for a colleague, a technology update, or an entirely new strategic direction – all done in the name of making things better. I’m here to tell you that your approach is (probably) missing something.

To set the stage, it may help if I start with a personal story.

At the end of my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I felt frustrated and helpless.

My job, as it had been described to me, was to help improve Panama’s English teaching infrastructure by joining local English teachers in their classrooms and introducing new techniques by teaching side-by-side. By December (the end of the Panamanian school year), I had made friends with the teachers at my local school and tried to make myself useful in the classroom, but I hadn’t managed to make much progress in terms of getting new techniques to stick. I loved the town I lived in, and the people at the school where I worked, but I didn’t feel like I was truly making a difference.

As many volunteers did, I kept a blog to update my friends and family on my service. That December, I made a vague reference to my frustration in one of my regular updates. Co-teaching was a delicate ballet, I said, and one that I wasn’t very good at.

A few days later, a short email appeared in my inbox, from a family friend who had dedicated her life to teaching in American public schools. “You seem to understand that teachers are very territorial,” she said, “but do you understand why? They have to be territorial because they have no power… Anyone and everyone has the authority to take it away. Understand that everyone is a threat and tiptoe softly.”

The statement turned every intention I had on its head. I thought I had come to help. Considering it from the vantage point of a local teacher, though, I was a joven (a young person), with no degree in education, sent by some distant higher-ups to remind the teachers that their English wasn’t perfect. I was an outsider, who didn’t understand their territory. Could I speak authentically on what these teachers worried about at night? Did I really understand where they felt they had power and where they didn’t? Did I know what was really important to them? Did I understand why things operated the way they did? Not really.

I had training in ESL teaching. I had access to resources. I was eager. But I lacked perspective and empathy.

“Seriously?! But my ideas are great! And I’m a nice person!”

From the “helper’s” perspective, help feels like change for the better, like doing the right thing. We see an opportunity to grow, or we find a better way to do something. Then we approach the people we want to change, and, in spite of giant bodies of research on behavior change, we expect the show-and-tell method to work: I tell you my idea, I show you how great this is, you adopt. Simple, right?

But then… nothing sticks. Behavior doesn’t change or it changes briefly but quickly reverts back to the old ways of operating. At some point, we throw up our hands and say “I just wanted to help – why isn’t it working?”

Chances are you have the resources, the eagerness, and the training. But you lack perspective and empathy.

“Fine. So what do I do? Abandon everything?”

Slow down there, tiger. Change your approach. Pause. And try some of the tips below to see if you’ve missed something (you probably have).

Talk less. Ask more.

We are a culture obsessed with having the right answer. When we try to help (read: create change), we typically go in with an idea for a solution, or at least a few assumptions. Flip that norm on its head: Ask questions that you don’t already know the answer to, like you’re five years old. Good help involves great curiosity.

Question asking is an art, and one that takes practice. Some questions shut folks down, others open them up. Aim to open people up and come from a place of genuine curiosity. Edgar Schein’s book, Humble Inquiry, is an excellent resource for this.

Make Friends with Someone Who Will Give You Wake Up Calls

You need an honest friend on the “inside.” I got lucky – someone who was a teacher, and is, now, practically a member of my family, was comfortable enough to reach out and give me a direct hint that I was off base. If you’re trying to create change in your organization, develop relationships with the people in the groups you’re engaged with. Find a trusted friend in that group, and ask for feedback. Say the words “Can you tell me if I’m not fully understanding what you’re dealing with?” or, if you’re really good friends, “Hey buddy, feel free to give me a verbal slap if my approach to change is completely missing something. I need wake up calls.”

“Live” in the Community

Peace Corps volunteers spend two years in a place, and most of my fellow returned volunteers would say it took them at least a year before they fully understood what their communities needed and how they could help. That long-term commitment does something – there is nothing like immersion to understand different perspectives and empathize.

In organizations, this sort of immersion doesn’t have to be a full-time position. If you can manage to “live” in another person’s or group’s shoes for even a day, you’ll have made progress. Ask if you can shadow someone from the group for a day, or have someone walk you through “a week in the life” and listen intently. Do this with multiple people.

“I have done these things. Now what?”

Rinse, repeat. Empathy and perspective-taking is constant work. If you are in the business of change, or helping (most of us, at some point in our lives, are), you will have to do continual work to check yourself. Use frustration as an opportunity to go back to my friend’s original question: “But do you understand why?” The likely answer is “not quite.” Go back and try to understand. And if you’re truly inquisitive, connected, and immersed, you may just find the thing that actually works is not the thing you started with. That’s ok – that’s what help actually looks like.

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Chelsea Weber

Associate at gothamCulture
Chelsea Weber is personally dedicated to the genuine inclusion of the diverse groups involved in change efforts through deep dialogue, skilled facilitation, and systems thinking. She has supported the design and facilitation of numerous leadership development events for government clients, and she has carried out data collection, analysis, and interpretation activities for several organizational assessment and dialogue efforts.