When helping becomes unhelpful - Michelle Gibbings

When helping becomes unhelpful

In the delightful children’s book, The Boy, the Fox, the Horse and the Mole, a young boy becomes friends with three animals and along the way learns the wisdom of kindness.

In the book, the young boy asks the horse, “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said? ‘Help,’ said the horse. ‘Asking for help isn’t giving up,’ said the horse. ‘It’s refusing to give up.”

We all need help at points in our life, and a thriving society and community are based on the premise that when you do something for someone else, they will be willing to do something for you in return later. This is because receiving a favour or benefit from another person usually stimulates positive feelings towards that person. You may feel grateful and appreciative and subsequently desire to return the favour.

When this cycle of mutually beneficial exchange occurs, it operates to regulate, solidify and strengthen relationships and promote social affiliation and socially inclusive behaviours. This is the concept of social exchange in action, and it is fundamental to how we work and live.

Many years ago, one of my work colleagues deployed an effective strategy to get people to help when needed. Their approach was based on social exchange and the societal norm of reciprocity. Rather than going up to their desk and asking for help, they would first approach with a muffin and coffee in hand, and then the request for help would follow.

Dr Robert Cialdini, an expert in persuasion, outlined how reciprocity is a powerful force when seeking to persuade. In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he explained that we like to help people who have helped us or done something nice for us. He argued that reciprocity is a powerful behavioural motivator that can produce a ‘yes’ response to a request that would otherwise have been refused because of the indebtedness feeling that has arisen.

Consequently, reciprocity mechanisms can potentially control another person’s behaviour and lead to negative feelings of obligation and indebtedness.

Feeling grateful and feeling obligated and indebted are very different emotions. When you feel grateful, you are in a positive frame. In contrast, you can feel resentful when you feel obliged and indebted to someone. This is because when we feel obligated to do something, the original act has lost the element of generosity, or as Professor David Konstan suggested, “…it is merely a matter of paying off a loan”. Research shows that when you feel indebted, you feel less grateful.

Gratitude connects with relational aspects and fosters relationships, while indebtedness centres around a concern for equity. That is, restoring the balance in the relationship in some way. So while both emotions lead to an outcome, providing and receiving help in a way that stimulates gratitude is longer lasting.

Sometimes, people offer help, and we don’t want it (or think we need it). You often see this with children. They are trying to figure out how to do a task, and an adult steps in to assist, much to the child’s annoyance.

Researchers Hun Whee Lee and colleagues found that we are more likely to feel grateful for help when we ask for it; rather than when someone proactively offers it. When the participants in the study were more grateful, it led to more prosocial behaviour and work engagement the next work day.

We can’t get far in life alone, and workplaces can’t function without people being helpful. We are all at times in the role of the ‘helper’ or the ‘helped’. Challenge yourself to consider the role you are in, and what emotions and perspective you are bringing to that role.

There are two key questions to ask:

  • Firstly, is what you are providing genuinely helpful, or is it more about making you feel good about yourself or self-serving in some way? Consider if your intent is to drive feelings of gratitude and connection or feelings of obligation and indebtedness.
  • Secondly, if someone has helped you, what have you done to acknowledge their support? I am a big fan of thank-you notes, and I love the wave you receive when you let a person merge on the road. It’s easy to think small acts like this don’t matter. They do. As this article in The New York Times reminds sending a handwritten note is not just a nice gesture but a powerful way of building connections (as well as brightening a person’s day).

Being helped and being helpful at work matter, but it needs to be done in a way that stimulates positive emotions and fuels connection and engagement.

And remember, the wise words of the Philosopher and Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius “Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up..so what?”

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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