Helicopter managers: The helping hand strikes again

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In the workplace, many people become helicopter managers, hovering over their employees in a well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt to provide support. These are givers gone awry—people so desperate to help others that they develop a white knight complex, and end up causing harm instead. Studies by the psychologist Sandy Lim suggest that helicopter managers prevent recipients from becoming independent and competent, disrupting their learning and confidence for future tasks. In focusing on the short-term benefits of helping, helicopter managers overlook the long-term costs.

To grow, people need to be challenged. Research at the Center for Creative Leadership shows that challenges—including having to work on unfamiliar tasks, lead change under uncertainty and exercise influence without authority—are important predictors of learning and development on the job. And three decades of evidence reveals that people achieve higher performance when they are given difficult goals. Difficult goals motivate people to work harder and smarter, develop their knowledge and skills, and test out different task strategies, all of which facilitate effectiveness and growth. But what’s the optimal level of difficulty?

In a classic study led by the psychologist John Atkinson, people were given the opportunity to take practice shots in a game of shuffleboard. Imagine that you’re in the study, and you have the option to take practice shots from various distances. Here are the odds of success if you shoot from different distances:

(a) Very easy (1-5 feet away): the odds of success are about 55%

(b) Intermediate (6-10 feet away): the odds of success are as low as 30%

(c) Very difficult (11-15 feet away): the odds of success are as low as 2%

Before you start, we’ll measure your desire for achievement, which allows us to classify you as either a low achiever or a high achiever. Now, where will you shoot?

As you might expect, the high achievers preferred to challenge themselves. More than half of the high achievers chose the intermediate level of difficulty, and more than a third chose the very difficult distances. Just 6% chose the very easy distances.

But surprisingly, the low achievers liked challenges too. Only 19% of them chose the very easy distances; 26% chose the intermediate difficulty, and 54% chose the very difficult distances. In other studies, Atkinson found that people often prefer a 50% chance of success over a 75% chance of success. In Ambition, Gilbert Brim writes that we strive for “just manageable difficulties”: challenges that test and stretch our skills, but don’t set us up for certain failure.

To prevent the helping hand from striking again, we need to keep our white knight complexes and helicopter tendencies in check. Instead of rushing to the rescue in ways that fail to benefit employees, and providing help that stifles their growth and development, leaders and managers would be wise to present just manageable difficulties. In the words of Anne Frank, we “can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.”

For more on how leaders and managers can bring out the best in others, see Adam's new book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMGrant.


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