Executive Education

How Over-Helping Stifles Fearless Cultures And Limits Growth

Marshall Goldsmith, leading thinker and business educator, reminds us in the title of his excellent book that What got you here won’t get you there. The qualities and competencies that got you to this senior leadership role are unlikely to help you succeed in this role.

Most of us began institutional life in a school system that rewarded us when we had the correct answer. Then in the workplace, we were promoted for knowing things and being right.

This became a learned behavior. The reward system in the brain responds with a hit of dopamine—a neurotransmitter known as a ‘happy chemical’—that leaves us feeling good.

Caution on over-sharing your wisdom

By the time we reach executive levels, we have cataloged many experiences and have libraries of information. It can be tempting to give people the answers; after all, we know how to handle many of the challenges the organization and our people face.

And yet when we tell people what to do we miss valuable opportunities to increase learning, build accountability, and boost engagement. And we may even be cheating the organization out of better solutions.

I worked with a leadership team of a health network. The CEO was passionate, experienced, and was recognized as an industry leader. One of the key reasons she engaged me was to help her develop the executive team, as it was too operational, causing her to be too operational in her focus. Consequently, the important strategic and external work she needed to do to secure the organization’s future wasn’t being addressed.  

It was clear to me very quickly—both from the team dynamic and from the motivational profile of the CEO—that she had some micromanaging tendencies. After initially building the confidence that she and the broader team had in me, I suggested that she may be micromanaging. Her response was immediate and clear—that was not the case! I asked her if she were okay with me asking her team members. It was very uncomfortable until someone said ‘yes’, and then everyone agreed. They all felt ‘over managed’ by the CEO and were able to give specific examples.                                                         

The CEO was horrified. Her intention was to be supportive and lighten their load. Instead, they felt micromanaged and untrusted. This was not what she wanted. In her efforts to help, she was ‘helping too hard’, contributing to a breakdown in trust, increasing disempowerment and reduced accountability, and creating a massive workload for herself at the same time.  

The team was now able to have a deep, open and honest conversation that lead to immediate commitments that were honoured over the coming weeks and months.

Corrinne Armour

What is a Fearless Culture?

Fearless Cultures get results. The performance bar is constantly being lifted through timely conversations that promote curiosity and lead to individual and team development. The things that matter are surfaced and resolved.

When groups of people come together, the conversation is focussed, lively and creative. Innovation is an approach to everyday activity—creating and harnessing insight—and not just a concept that’s peddled around the organisation. People at all levels feel empowered in their roles. They feel they are being invested in and supported. This environment promotes the kind of positive risk taking that comes from safety to challenge, to try things out and to fail.

Fearless Cultures have a buzz about them, and you don’t need to see the staff survey results to know that engagement is high. Accountability is in action every day: personal accountability, team accountability, and the willingness to hold one another accountable.

Developing a Fearless Culture

Fearless Cultures develop when:

  • Leaders tell less and ask more. Asking questions that lead to insight triggers parts of the brain’s wiring that leads to better memory, emotional connection and greater commitment to outcomes.
  • So we can tell people what to do, and while they may listen, they are unlikely to commit or recall what we have said. Or we can ask questions that result in people remembering and committing to their own solutions.
  • Leaders believe in their people. Assuming that your people have the answers they need takes belief, and when you show faith in them, growth is more likely. When you mindlessly provide the answers, skills stagnate.
  • Leaders make conscious decisions about whether, how and when to help, knowing that over-helping stifles Fearless Cultures and that people develop at the intersection of challenge and support.

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Corrinne Armour
Corrinne Armour is a leadership expert who helps leaders and organisations develop Fearless Leadership and deliver transformational results. She is the author of Leaders Who Ask: Building Fearless Cultures by telling less and asking more. She is co-author of Developing Direct Reports: Taking the guesswork out of leading leaders and two specialist texts on human behaviour.