On offering help that’s actually helpful

Reading Time: 9 minutes

We sometimes use the phrase “let them eat cake” to describe a rich person failing to understand their privilege.

It comes from a story in which someone tells Queen Marie Antoinette of France* that the common people don’t have bread to eat. She responds with “Well, why don’t they just eat cake then?” She doesn’t understand that the problem goes deeper than “they just happen to not have bread in the house today.”

Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette,” a movie about the French Queen with whom the phrase is most associated.

*It turns out she probably never said it, and there are several similar stories about different members of nobility throughout Europe. But the story endures because it speaks to people’s frustration about folks in power lacking the ability to empathize with them. The advice is out of touch, but that’s not the worst thing about the story.

The worst thing about the story is this: rather than doing something about a desperate situation that a rich/powerful person could fix, the rich/powerful person is telling the common people what they should do about it. That doesn’t just frustrate people: it downright pisses them off.

Why is this so off-pissing? Well, there are two kinds of help:

  1. Advice, and
  2. Backup.

And it’s exceedingly common to offer #1 to people who need #2.

And that’s not just for nobles or politicians.

I see software engineers do this all the time, particularly when they have a vantage point on a project they’re not responsible for. We’ve talked about this phenomenon before with pull request reviews. Today we’re talking about the general case.

It’s really annoying when someone who could improve your situation abstains from doing so and instead gives you homework. It looks selfish, and that’s because it is, in fact, selfish.

Similar to dogpiling ‘in the name of social justice’, offering advice gives people a dopamine hit that they can rationalize with “I’m doing a good thing” before they have to consider how it’s actually impacting someone else. Advice is cheap to give. It doesn’t require us to stick our neck out, spend social capital, or even verify that the advice is actually gonna work. Plus, giving advice strokes our egos. It makes us feel smart and knowledgable. It makes us feel, maybe sometimes, a bit superior.

Look. Right now, wee’ve all been cooped up for 2 years with relatively few people around to adjust our self-image. So our negative self-talk has dragged most of us to this point where the prospect of a little validation sounds especially attractive right now. Even without this, I’ve watched many an insecure, insufferable tech bro turn into an absolute ANGEL when a junior asks him a question he knows the answer to.

He’s not a shitty person. He’s just defensive about not being an omnipotent wizard, and for this moment he gets to actually look like one. That’s exciting, freeing, blissful. Folks leap at it. And when someone asks for “help” and this option is available, honestly, the temptation to offer advice is darn near insurmountable.

In fact, we can scarcely resist even when we don’t really have any validated advice to offer. “I haven’t actually ever done anything even remotely similar to what you’re asking for help doing, but EYE think…”

We sometimes call this ‘mansplaining,’ but I’ve seen all kinds of people do it. It’s probably exacerbated by dudes’ social conditioning to believe everything they have to say is something the world would benefit from hearing, but they definitely don’t have a monopoly on it.

And that is why I’d gently encourage you, dear reader, to consider this post on asking for help less like “YEAH! Take THAT, people who’ve done this to me!”

and more like “Hmmm…when have I done this to someone, maybe?”

“Could I benefit from having a framework when people ask for help?”

I recommend monitoring your own advice-to-backup ratio for a week or two.

It’s shockingly easy to catch oneself offering unsolicited or unverified advice, once you’re looking for it. It’s not even that weird to catch oneself doing it to a relative expert. Because it’s not about the recipient. It’s about the dopamine rush for the giver. “Oooh, I’ve got an answer! Pick me!”

But from an impact perspective, it’s often not helpful. If the “advice” isn’t verified, it’s speculation, not advice. The original help requester can speculate just as well as the advice giver can.

So how do we temper this urge, and how do we know when/whether to give advice?

I’ve heard the standard nerd solution to this problem: “Ask the person if they want advice or backup.”

Pragmatically, this only works in three cases:

  1. The recipient actually truly wants advice.
  2. The recipient has significantly more power than the giver.
  3. The recipient trusts the giver a lot. More than colleague-level “a lot.” More like “I would tell you about the personal characteristic I’m most insecure about” a lot.

Why asking whether someone wants advice or backup usually doesn’t work:

  1. It’s often awkward to ask for backup. It feels presumptuous.
  2. Without either a noticeable downward power gradient or a solid foundation of trust, a person isn’t gonna admit they don’t want your advice.

So, how do?

I’m not claiming to be an expert, but what has worked for me is to assume they want backup.

Backup can look like:

  • Sitting down to work alongside someone on a task (i.e., not lobbing suggestions across the room for them to research and implement alone).
  • Advocating on their behalf in rooms they are not in (that might be to their manager, or it might be to someone else with the power and knowledge to support the person).
  • Introducing them to people who can help them (for example, in my independent consulting business, every single client except for two have been referrals).
  • Offering them resources at my disposal like books/sites/examples (note that this says ‘offer,’ not ‘recommend.’ Telling someone to buy something is still assigning them homework).

Then, when I give advice, it is most often in the context of “here is how I recommend making the most of the backup I am offering you.”

Believe it or not, this has been helpful for me to think about even in situations where the person has explicitly requested advice.

Why? This is my heuristic that you’re gonna hate, probably:

If I don’t have the skills, network, or influence to provide backup to someone who needs help, I’m probably also not qualified to offer advice on this topic.*

And if I were to offer advice in the absence of the ability to also provide backup, that’s an indicator that I’m doing the advising for my own ego and not for the person I’m helping.

*I asterisked the heuristic. Lemme explain the asterisk.

If someone asks me for advice using the literal word “advice,” and I have experience that lines up with what they’re doing, but for confidentiality or territorial reasons I can’t provide backup, I might share how I’d make a decision. I still try not to tell them what to do.

Am I perfect? Definitely not. I’m sure I mess this up.

But the framework helps me mess it up less. And I’d like to gently offer the framework, unsolicited I know, to help other folks maybe mess it up less, too.

The “How to Help People” Framework, in Short:

GIVEN: Someone asks for help,
THEN I ask myself:

  1. Can I provide backup? If so, I offer it.
  2. Do I have advice how to maximize the backup? If so, I offer it.
  3. If I cannot provide backup:
    1. Did the person ask me for advice? If not, shut up.
    2. If so, do I have experiences that directly translate to what they’re doing? If not, shut up.
    3. If so, walk through my thought process with them.
  4. And basically always validate, to the strongest degree that I authentically can, that I believe in this person and that I think they totally have all the positive qualities at their disposal to do whatever it is they’re trying to do.

NOTA BENE: when I do offer backup or advice, I don’t hold the person accountable for using or following it. I don’t automatically inject them into a binding agreement to use my help. If I would have to do that to offer the help, I don’t offer that help. Why? It’s annoying to get homework assignments from someone who could offer backup, but triply so for that person to then grade me…especially if the advice was not good or not right for me.

I’ll also say, it’s easier said than done to not do this. I even have to be careful if I end up, apropos of nothing, following up with the person later to find out even just how they’re doing in life, because that can get interpreted as ‘did you follow my advice?’

And Finally

When I feel doubt about offering help, I remember some of the things I have learned in my career about the futility of saviorism in crowded spaces—no matter how good it feels for me, the purported savior.

I remember that empowering excluded voices produces visionary outcomes. But I also remember that, when someone else succeeds, they’ll (hopefully) remember who helped them. And as I throw my hat in the ring to be one of the people they’ll remember, I consider what will be most memorable.

More often than not, it’s not a standalone homework assignment. It’s a leg up.

If you liked this piece, you might also like…

The Oxymoron of Data-Driven Innovation, which I linked above but which I think you’ll like if you found this piece useful

A Rubric for Evaluating Employee Contributions to an Inclusive Company Culture, with even more advice about how to foster the tech culture you want in more specific terms than “don’t be ___ist”

A Rubric for Evaluating Employee Contributions to a Maintainable Code Base, the technical counterpart to the piece above and, in my opinion, the path to creating bandwidth on your tech team.

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