Q: As a manager, I was often told that asking my direct reports “How can I help?” is a good way to demonstrate support and open up conversation. But one of my employees always reacts badly, as if it’s a veiled accusation that he needs help or that he’s not doing something correctly or fast enough. What am I doing wrong?
A: While asking “How can I help?” might be a great opening for some people, not every tactic works for every employee, and as a manager, it’s your job to find out what works best for each individual. Clearly this phrase upsets this person. Can you change how you offer your support or even ask him what he would prefer to hear? Changing the language slightly from “How can I help?” to something like “Is there anything I can do to help?” will make a difference—it removes the implicit assumption that help is needed. Find what works best for this employee in order to keep him motivated, then offer support and redirect, if needed, accordingly.
There are other aspects of your delivery that could be affecting your employee’s reaction to this question. Are you starting the conversation with something positive, like “Things look great, I like what I see,” or do you just open with “How can I help?” which might get the employee’s defenses up? How much information do you provide when you’re asking this question? Offering more comprehensive feedback on the project or contextualizing your offer to help will have a positive impact. Check your tone, too. Are you inadvertently sounding accusatory or frustrated? This speaks to authenticity, as well, which is vital. If you’re only using this strategy because you’ve been taught to—and not because you genuinely mean it—the employee may be sensing that, resulting in their reluctance to engage with the offer. You have to mean it.
Your history of using this phrase may also be having an impact. If all of your employees have heard you ask “How can I help?” only when someone is struggling, it may signify that you think a project is in trouble. The situation is similar to organizations using coaching for an employee as a precursor to separation: it becomes a negative, not a great developmental opportunity.
When you really want to offer support, try taking a more conversational approach to the project in question and delivering some positive feedback: “Looks like you have this under control, Rob. If there’s anything you need from me at any point, please let me know.” The message should be “Tell me what I can do and when.” Delivering your offer of support as a broad statement rather than a direct question will also make it easier for your employee to take. Ultimately, you want to leave the responsibility and control of the project with the employee, not take their authority or control away.
Some employees may just have an attitude about everything, and that needs to be addressed. But, as a manager, you need adjust to what each individual employee needs—which can be challenging work. This can happen by having a conversation about employees’ preferences, paying attention to your phrasing and tone, offering positive feedback, and letting the employee communicate how they are best managed to get the best from them.