Trust me, it surprised me too.
“How can I help you?”
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…
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Stop asking your employees this one question — it’s hurting them was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.