Help – Changing Your Life With Borrowed Hands
Help – Changing Your Life With Borrowed Hands
June 25, 2013
Winston Wayne Wilson
Believe it or not, most people do not like to be helped. Being helped makes us feel like we are beggars or that we are getting some kind of hand out because we are incapable of fending for ourselves. In short, we think that being helped means that we have failed at some level. As a result, most of us would much prefer to fail alone that to succeed with the helping hands of others. The singular culprit for this underlying mindset is pride. When we are entrenched in this kind of mindset we will struggle with, and forfeit the benefits from, working in teams, networking and community involvement.
Many years ago, I participated in a team building exercise where people were asked to stand up, stretch a little bit and then change five things about themselves. A few people struggled and got stuck. Most people, me included, managed to quickly find five things by simply taking off their ties, belts, shoes, eyeglasses and watches. We all missed the mark. There was one clever person, however, who walked up to someone else and exchanged his watch, tie, jacket and a number of other items with the person. Hey, a team building exercise where the solution involved teamwork – what a concept.
This simple act was like “duh!” but still profound in many ways. The vast majority of us immediately focused on changing everything ourselves. In so doing, our concept of change resulted in losing something – we gave up our ties, belts, shoes, eyeglasses, watches and jewelry. The person who took a team approach to changing himself lost nothing. In fact, he gained a nicer tie and jewelry as well as a more interesting watch and belt. The key message from the exercise was that we can do a pretty good job changing ourselves. However, the possibilities become endless when we leverage the hands of others as part of our change management process. Our lives, and all the challenges we face, are too overwhelming for our two hands to take care of everything.
It was ironic that, although people were participating in a team building exercise, only one person thought of taking a team approach to changing himself. This, however, demonstrated how culturally bent we are on blocking help hands. As a culture, we like to encourage singular effort. Specifically, we want people to pull themselves up by their boot straps, rather than being carried to success on a bed of roses. That way, they can gain experience and develop character. Further, we are encouraged to be self-made, independent, and to be avid project-starting-do-it-yourselfers. These are all fair objectives. However, when we resist helping hands, there are three areas in which we will struggle: teamwork; networking; and community outreach.
Although there is no “I” in team, many of us find a way to put it in there anyway. We feel that the highest reward we can achieve, at work in particular, occurs when we manage to do something perfectly and singularly. Maybe so. There are good teams and bad teams; however, studies have shown that, on average, the overall end product tends to be better when there is contribution from a team versus one individual. No matter how highly we think of ourselves, sometimes we miss things or our creative lens are rarely wider than that of the team’s. A functional team is one in which each team member values, and actively seeks to leverage the contributions of all the other team members, without fear of asking for help or hesitation in providing help. Hence, the help we receive from a functional team is what I call “good help” because it tends to be reciprocal – we give something but we also get something from the team. It does not have to be a calculated, equally measured, “quid-pro quo” type reciprocation. It’s more of a healthy, “You hem the dress I pick up the mess”, good-natured type reciprocation that is prevalent in team sports. When you help team members with something they struggle with, at some other point they will help you with something you struggle with. I think we become better people when we can function in teams; moreover, our bosses and colleagues will take notice of our changed behaviors.
We can benefit more from teamwork by changing our mindsets about it. Too often, the concept of teamwork gets a bad rap – we think it’s a waste of time, people on the team don’t always pull their weight and that it’s much quicker to get things done by ourselves. All these claims have some merit; however, we can manage these negatives by establishing rules of team engagement and holding team members accountable. In the long run, we can avoid burnout, add longevity to our careers and enhance our learning experiences when we learn to properly leverage the benefits of teamwork.
Networking is another activity that we struggle with when we resist being helped. This is unfortunate because so much of our success in business, as well as life, is directly related to our ability to network effectively. At a basic level, some people think of networking as a sterile exchange of business cards, in a formal setting, for the purpose of mutual selling (usually at a time when they’d rather be home with their families). These people also avoid networking because they hate selling and they value their personal time. If we observe some of the best networkers, we will realize that networking is so much more than the perfunctory exchange of business cards. Good networking is really about developing relationships. As part of these well-established relationships, the sky becomes the limit in terms of the benefits and favors we can obtain. I have met people at networking events who became friends. They later asked me to take their children to lunch to talk about careers; they asked for help with internships for their friends and family; and they asked me questions about finance, college, travel, and relationships – you name it they asked and I obliged their requests. Why? Because I have asked them questions about countless things and requested just as many favors. Great networkers are not bashful about receiving help or giving help to others in their network. None of us could have accomplished the things we were able to accomplish if we were flying solo. As the old adage goes, “Many hands make work light”.
On the flip side, I have offered help to people in my network and they never took me up on the offers, even when they were drowning. Occasionally, I run into people who tell me that they are no longer at a particular job. When I ask why, they would tell me that it was too difficult to wrap their hands around some technical issue or deal with the politics. Usually, it is a technical issue that I have expertise in or politics that I have already navigated. Despite the fact that I repeatedly offered help, they struggled alone, lost the battle, jumped ship, and walked away from their development. On occasion, I would remind them that I offered to help them and the answer would always be, “I know, but I did not want to bother you.” This tells me that the person does not understand the “relationship” aspect of networking. I was just a business card in their rolodex, not a “friend”. If they thought of me as a friend, they would have gladly bothered me and I would have gladly obliged.
When a sale occurs as a result of a relationship in our network, it is typically because the buyer “likes” the seller and wants to do business with him or her. The buyer feels like there is a relationship there and the sale, in some ways, is a favor to a friend. If we cannot get to that emotional connection stage of networking, then we will struggle with asking for help and reaping its benefits. I have seen business men rummage through their rolodexes and go on a “begging spree” for business. More often than not, they walk away with business from those in their network with whom they have the strongest relationships.
If we took the time to go through our own networks of people, and took inventory of everything these people know, and the connections they have, it would be mind boggling to discover the number of opportunities we could have gleaned from these relationships. The reality is that most of us squander the benefits of our networks and we sub-optimize our success because we avoid reaching out for help.
On 9-11-2001, I was working in lower Manhattan, close to the World Trade Center, where the tragic events occurred. Within an hour of arriving to work, I was running down 24 flights of stairs into a street filled with people who were covered in a choking cloud of soot, pieces of papers and debris from the World Trade Center. The nearby subways, bridges and tunnels were closed and it felt like there was nowhere to go. I was most certainly not getting to New Jersey where I lived. I remember standing there in the crowd, unable to go anywhere, and all this horrid stuff was just raining on me. I felt helpless and thought to myself, “Well, I guess this is it.” Eventually, I ran into an ex-coworker who called his father, who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to try to get us rides to wherever we needed to go. Feeling helpless, I followed him along with some other co-workers to Brooklyn. We walked across the Williamsburg Bridge, which was the only bridge that was open, and made our way to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Along the way, people in the communities we walked through offered us water; some people in the group shared their cell phones; and we all consoled each other. A couple of the women travelling in my group had husbands who were firemen and were called to go help out at the World Trade Center. By the time we got to the Williamsburg Bridge, we saw one of the towers falling down and so these women were even more terrified about the fates of their husbands.
We got to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and they refused to let us in for security purposes. There went Plan A. We just stood there in the middle of Brooklyn looking dirty, disheveled, lost and, collectively, helpless. I had by then taken my shoes off because they were full of soot and grimy debris. A woman leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in an SUV, saw us and asked if we needed a ride somewhere. We really did not know how to answer her question since we all lived in so many different places. She decided to take us to Long Island University where they had set up a make shift operation to get people food, access to bathrooms and places to sit and wait for the transportation system to resume service or for them to reach out to friends and relatives to pick them up. After I cleaned up and had something to eat, I remembered that I knew someone living close to the university. I stopped by and she was home, housing other people who were also displaced. I stayed there until the evening when limited train service resumed. I had arrived at work around 8AM that morning and I arrived back home at midnight. To this day, I am thankful for the many hands that generously helped me during those 16 hours in which I felt helpless.
The bottom line is that in life we sometimes need help. Whether it is an event like 9-11, Sandy, or some other kind of person tragedy, we cannot let our prides turn away the hands of people in our community who want to help us. Similarly, it is our obligation to also lend a helping hand to keep the circle of humanity going.
My challenge for you today is to take a look at your life and see if your pride is getting in the way of you benefiting from your team members, your network or your community. Remember that our success, at work or in life, is contingent on our ability to leverage the helping hands of others. Enjoy your day.