Sam Lee Mohan, Founder & CEO at GBC, 4 min read

This will surprise you…as it did me!

Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one. 1


I’ll bet you that at some point, you’ve either asked an employee or have been asked as an employee, the well-intended question “How can I help you?” Sounds like a great question to ask somebody, right? Wrong…So, I used to think that asking somebody “how can I help you” was the most important question of the day. And, nearly every person I know, would answer, “sure, that’s a great question”.

Turns out, that me and almost every person I know would be wrong.

The question, “How can I help you?”, actually hurts people more than it helps. Let me explain…

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about a simple framework that every employer can implement to keep all their staff on the same page and pulling in the same direction. It’s called the daily review meeting or DRM. Now, as part of the DRM, our management team have implemented a simple question that aligns well with our culture here at GBC. Every daily review meeting ends with the simple and well-intended question, “How can I help you?”. Last week I noticed a pattern on the daily review meeting notes. I noticed that this question, “How can I help you?” was blank.

I was curious, so I decided to go back to the last six months of DRM notes. My findings were astonishing. I found that out of 120 daily review meetings, this well-intended question was completed zero times. Yup, that’s right, zero, zilch, nada, zip…So, at our management conference later in the week, I decided to put the power of this question to the test with a few fellow executives. I asked them whether they thought that asking an employee, “How can I help you?”, was a good question to ask employees.

As I suspected, almost every executive answered with a “yes” and few nodded in agreement. But one senior manager nodded her head in disagreement and then spoke up.

“I hate that question – I never know what to say when I’m asked that question”.

The room went silent and after a few seconds, she went on to explain. Firstly, she said that when you ask someone, “how can I help you?”, you’re not offering any specific ideas or suggestions for how you can be of help. Rather, you’re “putting the ball in their court” and relying on the employee to do the hard yards and figure out how you need to improve as a leader. Expecting that an employee will tell you, what you should be doing better without presenting any thoughts yourself is, well, lazy.

Not many bosses realise this, but asking an employee a question like “How can I help you” is simply another way of saying, “Tell me what I can be doing differently?” – Agreed? Now, for any employee, telling your boss that they can improve by doing things differently, or picking holes in the way your boss currently manages, is daunting…And most employees can’t tell if you’re ready or not to hear it. It is intimidating for employees to tell their bosses the truth. As a result, “How can I help you?” puts pressure on the employee to give a diplomatic response, instead of an honest one.

So instead of asking your employee “How can I help you”, try asking something specific that you can give help on, first. Point out your own potential flaws, instead of burdening your employee to point it out. The more you go first and share what you think can be better, the more room you’ll give your employee to give you an honest response about what they think could be better.

Here’s an example of a great question that most of us can relate to, “Have I been putting too much on your plate and do you need some breathing room?”

Stop hurting your employees with the wrong question. Start asking the right one.


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