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The Power of Asking ‘How Can I Help?’

by | Aug 25, 2022

Across the internet, it’s easy to find examples of “instant karma.” These are illustrative moments when someone’s actions immediately result in a fitting consequence—good or bad. For example, you might see a child run by and steal their sibling’s toy, only to trip and fall in the process. On the flip side, you might see a pedestrian jog ahead to help someone who’s dropped something—only to have a car careen into the sidewalk right where they had just been standing a moment ago. You’ve probably experienced a few similar moments in your own life.

Wouldn’t life be easier if we could immediately reap the benefits of our good actions? Usually, we must be patient to see results. Good things take time, and the law of the harvest dictates that before we can reap, we must sow and wait for things to grow.

However, there is something that leaders can do today, that will immediately kickstart a change in the dynamics of a workplace. When leaders implement this practice, they will quickly see a positive impact. It all hinges on asking these four words: “How can I help?”

The Best Leaders Are the Best Helpers

Think of the people you lead. Imagine your next interaction with an individual or with your whole team: How would the exchange differ from the norm if you started the conversation by asking four simple words, “How can I help?”

  • Might this approach change the encounter?
  • Would the other person(s) be more or less willing to trust and engage with you?
  • How might it transform the tone not only of that one conversation, but of all the conversations with that person(s) to follow?

Instinctively, as you imagine leading with a helping orientation, you likely see there is great potential in this approach.

But perhaps this feels counterintuitive. Many believe that great leaders should be charismatic, imposing, take-charge types. And while confidence is important, and it’s OK to be a bold leader if that’s your personality—it’s also true that the best leaders are the best helpers. They don’t always tell everyone what to do, they want to help people do things too. Leading isn’t always about commanding; often, it’s about supporting. It’s about being there for others, for listening, for showing up, for rolling up your sleeves alongside the troops.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean offering to do people’s work for them; it means making sure they have everything they need to get the job done. Helping manifests in different ways and can take many shapes. But the bottom line is that when people feel cared for and supported, they perform better—they’re more likely to be vulnerable, to ask for support, to bring energy to the work, and to deliver better results. Employees come alive when they feel assured that they’re not alone and when they believe that leadership has their back.

This might seem obvious, but its simplicity is what makes it effective. You don’t need to choose between treating people well and getting results. In fact, to get your best outcomes, you must honor people.

For any leader, but especially those on their Blueprint journey, who are looking to “get unstuck,” focusing on helpfulness is an accessible starting point. Helping others helps you—it helps you feel more joy, find more fulfillment, and have more immediate impact. And it empowers your team to do the same as they adopt your spirit of helpfulness.

Here are three tips to keep in mind.

1. ‘How Can I Help?’ Is Not Just a Phrase, It’s a Mentality

English author John Donne famously said, “No man is an island.” Yet, people often isolate themselves at work, and not always by choice. Fear, unease, and lack of confidence can all hold someone back from asking for help or collaborating with colleagues. This happens to leaders too. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in your own work that you become unavailable to others, without even realizing it.

To combat isolation, learn to embrace “How can I help?” not just as a phrase, but a mentality, an approach, a way of life. It’s the catalyst for creating a culture that can break down the towers of separation.

When you ask someone, “How can I help?,” you take the focus off yourself and place it squarely on the other party. These four words are disarming because they telegraph humility and a willingness to listen, understand, and to meet other people’s needs. And it shows that you’re “all in” for the whole team—not just for yourself. This begins to conjure “instant karma,” in that the natural response is for the team to want to be “all in” for you in return. Like ConantLeadership Founder Doug Conant often says, this is how you go from a “me” culture to a “we” culture.

It all begins with you. To create a strong feeling of togetherness, leaders must first model the helping behavior. Once you’ve established an environment where people know they’re supported and valued – and that you’re there to help– it opens the doors for limitless possibilities. Fear fades away and is replaced by curiosity, confidence, and excitement. Over time, the culture becomes collaborative, kind, and enthusiastic instead of isolated, begrudging, and apathetic.

It takes a lot of confidence to ask for help; you can make it easier by offering it freely and encouraging others to do the same. It starts with switching your mindset and adopting a helper’s mentality.

2. Be a Proactive Helper

You might be wondering, what does the “help” look like in the question “How can I help?” For the words to be effective, they cannot be mere lip service; the phrase isn’t a way to placate someone momentarily—it requires follow-through.

To wield your helpfulness with skill requires situation awareness. You need to be exquisitely tuned in to the needs of your organization. Instead of waiting for someone to approach you, practice approaching them first.

A good leader observes and knows their people well; they are available and approachable. Skilled leaders aren’t scarcity-minded, reserving their time and energy only for issues in their direct field of vision. Rather they are abundantly minded– ready to engage with the full scope of their organization, and curious beyond their own concerns. The more present and involved you become with all your stakeholders, the better you can anticipate what every facet of the organization might need to thrive.

One way to practice honing your abundant mindset so you can discern what “help” looks like in each situation is to simply be more present in your interactions. Don’t daydream about something else or zone out. Be there. Show people they matter. Proactively offer words of encouragement before they’re even required. Make a running list of ways you’ve been helpful in the past and ways you might be helpful in the future.

There will never be one magic bullet that solves everyone’s problems. But you’ll be well-positioned to offer better support when you are proactively scanning for ways to help, rather than merely reacting as quagmires arise.

This approach contributes to a culture of mutual trust which is valuable during good times and crucial during difficult times. The proactive trust you build with your team in your day-to-day interactions can create an unshakeable bond.

3. Leverage Your Skills to Help Your Circle of Influence

Recent world events, including the pandemic, have caused a lot of worry and heartache. Almost daily we learn about more war, corruption, sickness, injustice, etc. Our circle of concern is growing and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Because of this, many people need help and support more now than ever before.

While we may not be able to help everyone who needs it, we can focus our efforts by narrowing our scope—from our circle of concern to our circle of influence.

Take a minute to think about the people around you.

  • Who could you help tomorrow?
  • Who could you help next quarter?
  • How could you help them?
  • What skills and resources do you have?
  • How can you leverage your skills and resources to help?

Dr. Stephen Covey taught that when we help those around us, our circle of influence grows. As we focus on the things we can control, and on what we can realistically accomplish day-to-day, we will be able to help more people.

You have unique leadership skills and special gifts. Think about how you can harness your specific abilities for good right now. Don’t worry about getting it exactly right – you don’t have to be perfect to influence others. Quality support, offered earnestly and carried out competently, is a million times better than “perfect” support that is promised but never materializes.

Helpers Beget Helpers

We often hear the idea that leaders go first. Just as children watch their parents, and students watch their teachers, teams watch their leaders. Whatever you model, your team will emulate.

Doug Conant wrote in The Blueprint: “When you make helping others a priority, you create an army of helpers in your image, all of them working to help you advance the agenda in turn . . . Good begets good. Help begets help.”

Heed his advice. You can generate an entire organization of helpers by being one yourself.

The more you ask, “How can I help?,” the more others follow your lead and it becomes a virtuous circle, resulting in a culture of care and excellence.

While most things require patience, you can start being a helper today. Offer help in your very next interaction. Invest in others and see what wonders they will yield. It might not be “instant karma,” but it’s the next best thing.

McKinlee CoveyAbout the Author: McKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire

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