Offering Help to a Fellow Leader

Business colleagues sitting at a table during a meeting with two male executives shaking handsIt seemed logical and right to Fred to offer his help to the sales director.  After all, “sales is everyone’s responsibility”, acknowledged Fred, even though he was the operations manager.  Fred was watching his colleague Ryan’s area flounder in the new sales campaign, and he was sure he had some experience with the business-to-business customers that would really make a difference.  He knew that Ryan was under a lot of pressure from the CEO, and that the impact of a poor sales campaign would be devastating for the company.

He approached Ryan to offer his help with genuine concern for his colleague and for the company.  To his surprise, Ryan was far from appreciative.  He resisted all of Fred’s offers to advise or step in or provide resources.  He assured Fred things were under control and he didn’t need anyone’s help.  All Fred could do was walk away, bewildered – and frankly, angry at being dismissed when he had meant nothing but good.

What went wrong here?  How could Fred’s good intent have had such a poor impact?

Let’s go through a checklist about helping business colleagues and see where Fred might have made some missteps.

  • Do you have a relationship? Accepting help requires a degree of trust.  Someone in Ryan’s position is vulnerable, and can easily become suspicious of offers of help if there is not already a trusting relationship built.  If there is little in the way of a relationship, the best you can do is reach out to say you see yourselves as in this together and offer an ear, especially in an area where you have some experience.
  • What are the expectations of the person you’re trying to help? If someone is being held to personal, rather than organizational, expectations about performance, help from another may be interpreted as a signal that the person can’t do it on his own.  Fred knows that Ryan’s organization is being held accountable for the success of the sales campaign, but does he know what personal expectations the CEO has placed on Ryan?  It’s useful to discern this, if possible.  The best you may be able to offer if someone is being held personally accountable is resources to help.
  • Where are the power differences? Perceptions about power often interfere with offers of help.  If Fred is a buddy of the CEO, his offer of help might be suspect.  Conversely, if Ryan is an up-and-comer and Fred is not seen as a strong player, his offer of help may be discounted.  If power differences are significant and likely to interfere, it may not be worth offering the help.  But if it is offered, it should be with an acknowledgement: “I understand that my relationship with the CEO may color your view of my offer, but I want to genuinely offer this help in the interests of the organization’s – and your – success.”
  • Do you view things the same way? If your offer to help is not coming from a shared perspective on a problem, it may be rejected.  It may feel like a deceptive way of imposing a dissonant solution.  Again, acknowledging a different viewpoint can mitigate the rapid rejection: “Ryan, I know we don’t share the same understanding of how best to address this problem, but I do know we both share a sincere interest in the outcome.  What I’d like to offer is whatever you believe could be most helpful to you to move forward in a way you believe is right.”
  • What are you offering? What you offer to a colleague needs to be based first and foremost on what he or she understands as a real need.  As many people would say who’ve recently undergone major abdominal surgery, the well-meaning friends who bring a dish of homemade spicy enchiladas are offering something of dubious value.  Fred offered advice (not requested by Ryan), stepping in (subtly sending a message that Ryan couldn’t do his job), and resources (to what end?).  The best first step is to ask what might be helpful in the interests of getting what they both need – a healthy organization.  Then exploring, together, what expertise, resources, or other aid might be genuinely helpful is a positive next step.

Offering to help your colleagues is a magnificent gesture, and most often, viewed positively.  Yet there are influences that reduce receptivity to these kind propositions.  It’s helpful to know what they are before making your offer, so that you and your offer are accepted in the positive light you intended.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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