Help needed

The following are a series of disturbing reports all taken from It’s my most reliable source.

“The guy was obviously struggling to keep afloat. He was out of his depth and his head kept disappearing below the surface. He was calling out for help, but this HR professional was standing on the side of the lake and just kept on asking him how he thought he got into this situation in the first place. He pointed to a life buoy at the side of the lake, but they told him that, without understanding the root cause of his drowning, they couldn’t really help. After a while he went under and didn’t come back up. The HR guy muttered something about the leadership team needing to take more accountability and went off for a coffee”

“It just shocked me. I went to HR and said ‘I could do with some help’ and they told me that they wouldn’t help me unless I could clearly articulate what I meant by the word ‘help’. I said ‘this isn’t very helpful’ and they looked at me like I was talking a different language. We ended up with me having a far reaching conversation about ‘strengths based leadership techniques’ and their relation to ‘values centric competency models’ – when I just wanted to know why I’d been paid less this month”

“I went to the doctor and said I’d been having some health problems and was hoping he could help. He explained that if he did help I’d be building some kind of dependency on him, so he’d rather just ask me some open questions and then I’d still be responsible for my health. He said help was a bit of a scary word as he couldn’t tell if he’d actually helped for certain for a number of years.”

Help isn’t a dangerous word. It isn’t a weak word – most honest conversations and most brave conversations come from our conviction to help. It’s a powerful word. We all have enough of a common understanding of it that it baffles me that we spend any time defining our language around it – or that there is any challenge in using it. We all understand the following language

  • Do you know what? That chat we had the other day really helped
  • Dave, you really aren’t helping the situation
  • I’m swamped and I could do with some help
  • Is what I’m doing helpful or not?
  • I was genuinely trying to be helpful
  • I know you think you are helping – but you’re not
  • Help

It should be a common language for the profession. It should anchor us. Simple, jargon free, understood by all. We help people and organisations understand and realise their ambitions. We help shape their ambitions. We intend to help and we try to help. Sometimes we don’t help. Most subjective concepts have wriggle room for failure.

When my daughter tells me she loves me I don’t ask her to define it before I accept it. There are concepts that are universal enough for us all to plug into. This is one of them. Any word we use varies slightly in interpretation, but sometimes we need to look for the commonality rather then difference. Sometimes we need to be pragmatic and say – I pretty much know what you mean. We shy away from using  ‘help’ but we think the following terms are acceptable:

  • competency framework
  • onboarding
  • downsizing
  • EQ
  • organisational intervention
  • coaching/mentoring
  • blended learning

Some of the conversations I’ve been in recently have been around whether help is an appropriate word to describe what we do. I haven’t heard a word yet that helps people better understand what good HR is. It helps. Everything else that anyone substitutes in seems just like an attempt to not use the word ‘help’.

Some of the conversations have been more about ‘who decides what is helpful?’. That doesn’t matter – anymore than it matters who decides what is useful, best or most sensible or whether they have been coached. There is intent and outcome – the bit in the middle is helping (or trying to). If you get an organisation of people trying to help each other you won’t go far wrong.

‘Servant leadership’ = people wanting to help each other

Excellent customer Service = people wanting to help customers

Coaching = helping people improve.

We’ll all have a different view of exactly of what a word means, but we know what it isn’t. Sometimes that’s enough.

Go and find people to help. Do good. That’s enough. Move to action. Reflecting too much on meaning isn’t helpful to being meaningful.

Help. It’s what we do. Hope that’s helped clear things up.

(by the way, if you ever do want to define want counts as help then Edgar Schein had a good go – something people can’t see or do for themselves.

And I appreciate that some of the descriptions of other people’s positions on this issue may have been fictionalised or exaggerated, but since my last post included a complaint about crudely polarising positions I’m genuinely revelling in the hypocrisy)

6 thoughts on “Help needed

    1. You do plenty to help plenty of people… I know… we all talk! I think there are some underused questions for leaders. What do I do that helps? What am I doing when I’m not helping? What do you need my help with? Who else could help? None of this stuff is complicated, not to say it is easy…


  1. Nice post David. I wonder if the word ‘Help’ is seen as being too ‘simplistic’ so it has to be ‘bigged’ up to other fancy words?
    When I first started out in consulting, I quickly learnt that asking ‘how can I be of help’ is a far better one that ‘what can you do for me’. Since then I have made a conscious effort to be ‘helpful’ in all aspects of my life (community, school, church…) and not just at work in the professional sense. Alongside ‘help’ for me is ‘to serve’ – focusing on the needs of others


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