I thought it was as simple as indiscriminately clicking "Add friend" on thousands of Facebook accounts. Surely with that wide a pool of potential friends, at least SOME of them will accept a friend request from a complete stranger without a second thought.
You’d think this would be a great question to ask your employees. Surely, I’ve asked this question, as a CEO myself, to my own team countless of times.
Turns out, I’m wrong.
The question, “How can I help you?” hurts employees more than it helps.
Let me explain.
The other week, I ran a workshop. One of the participants — a CEO — was struggling to get feedback from a particularly quiet employee at his company. He asked the other folks in the room for advice about it.
“What if I asked the employee, ‘How can I help you?’ Do you think that’s a good question to ask him to encourage him to speak up?” he pondered.
A few other executives nodded their heads. “Yeah that seems like a good idea,” they said.
Another workshop participant spoke up.
“I hate that question,” she shared candidly (and a bit sheepishly). “When my own direct manager asks me that, I never know what to say.”
Everyone was perplexed — myself included. How could asking to give help ever be a bad thing?
But as she explained, it clicked for me. Despite being well-intentioned, here are three reasons why “How can I help you?” is a terrible question to ask your employees:
When you ask, “How can I help you?” you’re not offering any specific ideas or suggestions for how you can be more helpful. Rather, you’re relying on the employee to do the hard (and delicate) work of figuring out how you need to improve as a leader. Expecting that an employee will tell you what you should be doing better without presenting any thoughts on it yourself is, well, lazy.
It puts pressure on the employee.
Can you imagine how daunting it is to tell your boss what she needs to be doing differently? That’s what you’re doing when you say, “How can I help?” You’re asking for holes to be poked, for flaws to be exposed… And the employee can’t tell if you’re really ready or not to hear it. Anytime you’re speaking truth to power, it’s intimidating. We cannot underestimate as leaders the power dynamic that exists between an employee and an employer. There isn’t any incentive for an employee to critique or say something that might be perceived negatively by their boss. As a result, “How can I help you?” puts pressure on the employee to give a diplomatic response, instead of an honest one.
Now the employee is forced to quickly think through all the potential things that you could provide help with… On what project? On what area of the business? Should they mention communication? Should they talk about about timelines and deliverables? Should they bring up that thing that happened during that meeting last week? Or is the boss asking for something more high-level and strategic? It’s tough to know exactly what you’re asking for as a leader, when you ask the question, “How can I help?”
So what should you ask instead?
If you genuinely do want to know how you can help and support an employee, try this:
Ask about something specific that you can give help on, first.
Point out your own potential flaw, instead of waiting for your employee to point it out. Offer a critique of your own actions, instead waiting to see if it’s something your employee brings up.
The more you go first and share what you think can be better, the more room you’ll give your employee to give you an honest response about what they think could be better.
Here are some examples of specific questions you could ask…
“Do you think I’ve been a little micromanaging with how I’ve been following up on projects?”
“Have I been putting too much on your plate and do you need some breathing room?”
“Am I giving you enough information to do your job well?”
“Could I be doing a better job outlining the vision and direction for where we’re headed?”
“Have I not been as cognizant of reasonable timelines, like I should have?”
“Am I interrupting you too much during the day with meetings and requests?”
I guarantee an employee will feel more encouraged to give you their honest take on how you can help if you ask, “Am I interrupting you too much during the day?” rather than just asking “How can I help you?”
Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one.
This article was originally published for Inc.com, where I write a weekly column on leadership. To follow along and have new pieces sent directly to you, please feel free to subscribe below…
P.S.: Please feel free to share + give this piece 👏 so others can find it too. Thanks 😊 (And you can always say hi at @cjlew23.)
I have the luxury of being a jumble of thoughts today. My gay friends, female friends, Muslim friends, and immigrant friends are a jangle of nerves. I can’t imagine waking up in this country full of fear, but that’s the place in which many find themselves. This feels like a massive step backward for our country, but as a science fiction author full of optimism about the future, I’m going to stick to my naive and positive ways.
First, however, my dire thoughts, so I can end on all my positive notes:
The Supreme Court. The ultimate check and balance in our triumvirate is going to go conservative. I worry about reproductive rights, gay marriage, gun control, and so many more issues where progress has been made (or where we hoped it might be made). My naive optimism tells me that despite this, what we call conservative today would be considered liberal in the past, and that trend will only continue. And the Supreme Court tends to rule according to public will (see gay marriage). So as long as the populace improves, the courts will as well. Only 18% of Americans voted for Trump, and many of those because of distaste for Clinton (who also got 18% of the vote). MOST of Americans support gay marriage. MOST of Americans care about the environment. MOST of Americans want reproductive choice. The court will continue to reflect this.
Free trade. Trade protectionism has been likened to shooting a hole in your own boat hoping to get your rival’s boat to sink faster. I worry about rolling back NAFTA and the death of TPP. One of the reasons net immigration from Mexico has been flat or negative has been the rallying of their economy (a wall will only make it harder for some illegal immigrants to get home!). Cheaper than building a wall is to help job growth south of the border. Guess what? They buy more of our stuff as they develop a middle class. Having a 3rd world country next door is worse than losing some manufacturing jobs.
Foreign perception. Hey UK, you owe us one for making you look good.
Uncivil discourse. Our top spot belongs to someone who has made fun of the disabled, the overweight, the fairer sex, African Americans, and immigrants. This can only embolden others to spread a message of hate. And the other side of the political spectrum will likely return in kind. We need an end to this cycle, and it has to start somewhere. My naive optimistic take is that a Clinton win would have put the onus on conservatives to accept the outcome and dial back the negative rhetoric. It’s not an easy thing to do. I welcome the challenge.
Now for some unwarranted and unbridled positivity:
Progress is going to happen no matter what. It always has, even with some baby steps backward. Take the environment: Solar panel costs are plummeting. Solar is now cheaper to install than any other power source (even without subsidies). The economic advantage means that even Republican governors are green-lighting solar plants purely for financial considerations. Going solar, and adopting electric vehicles, are the surest long term way out of our global warming ways. This will happen even if pipelines are opened and we start to subsidize coal just to win a handful of jobs back. Those job hires will no longer be profitable. Legislation won’t save them or their polluting industry. (I dream of solar panels and robots being manufactured in the rustbelt)
Social progress is going to continue as well, over the long term. The only evidence I have of this is that the trend has been moving in one overall direction for a few thousand years. Future generations tend to be more compassionate and liberal than previous generations. So even the young Trump supporters who rail against Islam don’t justify slavery or say that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. I know that previous sentence sounds ridiculous, but that’s the point. Yesterday’s social movements are today’s satire.
A brief spate of trade tariffs might have benefits in the long term. No trade deals are permanent, nor are free trade deals off the table forever. Everything is negotiable and renegotiable. An end to free trade will help a small segment of the population (mostly wealthy owners of manufacturing concerns here in the States and a handful of low-wage jobs), but the cost is going to be higher prices of imported goods for all citizens. Maybe we need a reminder that this is how trade protectionism works: Every consumer is harmed to protect the interests of a small group of people, who are also consumers, and so are also getting hurt. It could lead to saner policies in the future. Here’s hoping.
There’s no chance in hell of this happening, because the people it targets are the people who would be displaced, but I really like Trump’s call for term limits. Trump won the highest office while spending half as much as his opponent, defying all odds and professional punditry, with an anti-establishment cause that has some planks that might as well be Bernie’s. Maybe this will spur others to run against incumbents in the House and Senate with a primary goal of establishing term limits. I don’t like the analogy of Congress needing a grenade lobbed into their midst, but a flash-bang might not be a bad idea.
Yeah, the rest of the world is laughing at us for putting a Cheeto in the oval office. But Putin might not want to laugh too long. When Trump is sworn in, future Russian hacks are going to be against HIS (Donald Trump’s) country. Right now, those hacks are against the establishment. There are going to be some 3am Tweets that arrive closer to lunchtime in Moscow. The overseas operators who enjoy screwing with us, and are cheering a Trump presidency, are going to have some regrets.
Civil discourse. I was heartened by speeches from Obama, Clinton, and Trump after the election. This is how democracy works: You fight for your candidate, and when you lose, you hope your opponent does well while the other side calls for unity. Country comes before party. This is rarely how it works, of course. Politicians sabotage their country all the time to lay blame and maintain power. But the way to fight this is to lead by example, not counter every ill with more sickness.On Twitter, I joked that my leaving the country for 4 years couldn’t have come at a better time, but that’s actually an unfortunate coincidence. In truth, this is the worst time to be going. Leaving means ceding the country to those who think the past was better than the future. This election would have gone differently were it not for the drain of liberalism out of our small towns and rural America to the universities and vibrant cities where progress is made, but where blue votes cluster uselessly. Just as the rest of the world agonizes over the “brain drain” as their finest students come to our great universities to study (and often stay), we should worry about a drain of liberalism as our most worldly citizens cross borders both state and federal. Maybe it’s time to move back to Arkansas to launch that startup. Or re-friend those we’ve blocked to renew some discourse. Or to just approach those who think hate will make this country great again and offer them a hug in response.
My heart breaks for those who are now fearful of their rights and their safety. My heart also breaks for those who have lost their jobs to technological progress and globalization and who think that immigrants are to blame. We are going through a period of global upheaval, which will all be for the better, but will be painful for many in the short term. Social progress and economic progress are going to come in fits and starts. Things are changing so rapidly that we find ourselves bewildered, lost, and unable to adapt in time. Some can’t adapt to the idea that men and women have fluid genders and differing sexual preferences, and the backlash is awful. Some can’t transition careers as quickly as markets are overthrowing entire industries, and those people deserve our sympathy as well. White men can’t deal with an end to a millennia of power, and this is the last-gasp death-spasm as demographics change forever.
You can’t convince me that 2100 won’t be a better year to be on Earth than 2016. Even as we build levies to keep back the rising sea, we’ll build them together. Even as computers, AIs, and machines take more of our jobs, we’ll transition together. More of our world will thaw, and maybe that won’t be such a bad thing. Perhaps in the future, we’ll be looking at moving to Canada not out of protest, but because of the weather.
Whatever happens, we’re in this together, the entire world, every human being. As I come out of the state of shock from the election results, I find myself wishing Donald Trump well. Despite all the vitriol and all the ways that I disagree with him. Despite the fear his policies place in the hearts of those I love. I hope the weight of the office, and our collective well-wishes, and the awesome strength of our people, make the next four years ones of progress. I care more about this country than I do the letter beside someone’s name, or who wins power in the next election, or who gets credit for our steady march onwards. What I care about is that onwards means upwards.
Now to write some more science fiction. These dystopias don’t create themselves, you know.
Lake Kittamaqundi originally featured an island known as Nomanisan Island, named by Columbia resident Alan Levine in a 1980 contest held by the Columbia Association. The island's name came from the phrase "No Man Is an Island" by John Donne. The gap between the island and the east bank of the lake was filled, creating a peninsula, during the dredging of the lake in 2010. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Kittamaqundi)