Stop Helping.

There were 40 fabulous HR folks in the room for my presentation on the Neuropsychology of Motivation and Engagement and we ran into a classic HR SNAFU. Luckily it was a PERFECT example of how each of us can inadvertently block our own success and the success of others.  Here’s what happened…

My volunteer for the Energy Drainer exercise was frustrated with a colleague back at the office.  Rather than mind his own beeswax he was continually checking up on her work, putting the kibosh on her ideas and generally making a nuisance of himself.

As my volunteer told her story, you could feel the tension in the room; the anticipation building as the 40 HR folks in the room salivated to solve this woman’s problem.  I held them at bay.

The next portion of the exercise is to ask “What would you like instead?”  We cycled through a few options to get to one that my volunteer, herself, could influence directly.  For instance “not having to work with him” isn’t necessarily directly within her control unless she’s prepared to quit. Probing further with, “what would that give you?” prompted an unexpected response.  She said: “I want to feel creative in my own right”.  Okay.  Now we’re getting somewhere.  Notice that her wish was probably not what any one of us in the room would have guessed.  And we never would have gotten that insight if we had jumped in and started solving the problem at the outset.

So, we continued with the exercise and my volunteer was humming along generating options for herself until we turned it over to the room to see what additional suggestions the audience might have.  A few bits of advice were dispensed, including a suggestion to talk with the colleague and find out what was compelling him to behave this way.  In response, to provide context, my volunteer explained that two years prior, the colleague had told her that the only reason she had the job was because she was a black woman.


The chum had been tossed and the feeding frenzy ensued with forty simultaneous, edge-of-the-seat voices clamoring to be heard.  Then they turned their attention to me, incredulous, hands raised:


It took us a few minutes to settle down.

Now, to recap, here’s the situation: We have a director level HR person at the front of the room as a volunteer, we have 10 minutes left to the presentation and we have 40 HR folks who literally cannot tear themselves away from “helping” this person address a slur made two years ago by the nitwit she works with.  Now rationally, I’m sure they would all agree that:

A. This is not an ideal forum for an employee relations intervention

B. As an HR person subjected to this onslaught of concern from her colleagues (40 strangers who happen to share her profession) my volunteer might be forgiven for feeling a bit insulted. (Is the assumption that she did not handle it well? Didn’t handle it at all?  What makes them think she needs to be guided, directed, approved of or saved?)

C. If we try to solve this “problem” as a group right here and now, we will not get the tremendous benefit of the last ten minutes of my fabulous presentation.  Which is what we’re here to do.

But they were NOT rational.  And it was the perfect object lesson for the Neuropsychology of Motivation and Engagement.

When our needs are threatened or our emotional triggers are sprung (ie need for respect, control, safety, order, dutifulness, etc.), the neurons in the part of our brain that control rational thought run like lemmings over the cliff to the part that runs our fight/flight response.

Their brain literally could not let the issue go until they felt satisfied that there was no danger in walking away from it.

We talked about what had just happened.  Many in the group agreed they had had a physical reaction when they heard about the slur.  They felt it in various places but most said they felt in their gut, their chest or in the form of a flushed face.  It was a real life example of how the amygdala triggers adrenaline in response to a perceived threat and it was why so many of them were having a hard time concentrating on the rest of the exercise.

Lessons Learned:

When a helping professional (HR, counselor, coach) is overcome personally by fight or flight stress hormones in response to what they perceive as the client’s problem, the “helping” can have detrimental results:

1. We are now occupied with OUR OWN perception of the problem and no longer exploring, understanding and appreciating the client’s perception

2. OUR solution/desired outcome is not necessarily the client’s best or most natural solution/desired outcome

3.We have inadvertently communicated our lack of faith that the client has done anything at all to help themselves (potentially reinforcing a sense of helplessness)

4. We have usurped the client’s personal power to and responsibility for conceiving of and choosing a course of action for themselves.

Click here for a great tool to help you stay centered and helpful while preserving the client’s personal power and self-efficacy.

For a deeper understanding of how the neuropsychology of your clients and employees affects everything your organization does, check out this video.

Finally, keep an eye out for September’s Uncommon Newsletter for a more in depth article on the implications of this phenomenon on HR and Employee Engagement.

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