When is help not helping?

An interesting experience at the local fried chicken store. Last time I went to my local fried chicken store I was struck by the total lack of awareness by the staff. The simple process of taking orders, preparing food, bagging and final delivery was completely off the rails. The bizarre thing was that it had gone off the rails mostly because of one “helpful” person. To summarise the situation I’m at the counter to order and ended up waiting more than 10 minutes for a staff member to take my order. The store was not overly busy only a few customers. So why the long wait before taking my order? The staff member in question had left his post “the register” to aid another front of house staff member in bagging orders. Nice of him but in more than 10 minutes he never kept an eye on the counter for new customers and no other staff member bothered to notice. I personally would have walked out 3 times over but my son wanted Fried chicken so we stayed. While waiting and watching the process the staff were engaged in I noticed they were waiting upon menu items which were not ready yet. The back of house staff never glanced at the counter, the front of house staff had their backs to the register meanwhile the customer waited. Eventually the male staff member came to the register and took another customers order who had been standing there waiting. I actually thought she had already ordered but she hadn’t. Upon taking her order he proceeded to go off to the bagging area to help his fellow female counter part.

Now all this time I was wondering if the two young people had been trained in front of house customer service. The basics of any food outlet the way I see it is get the order as soon as possible, once you have their order they are hooked and wait. One of the metrics most organisations use for customer relations is the wait time, answer the phone call in 3 – 8 rings etc. Back to the “process” I use the term loosely; while the staff were waiting on the menu items, no orders were taken therefore the cooking team could not prepare the food in the meantime for the other customers. The kitchen staff never glanced at the counter to gauge the up coming work load, the management never appeared from the back of the store/kitchen. This was not rush hour (5 people in the store) but the entire team at the local fried chicken store had bottle necked.

The counter staff handed the food to the previous customers apologising for the delay. I was thinking ‘if you take the orders while waiting for the not prepared menu items, the wait would not be so great’. The order taking process is the most crucial and shortest compared to those following.

Several minutes passed and then the female staff member came to take my order. Meanwhile two other customers entered and the older man walked start up to order in front of me. Realising the error, the female staff member asked me for my order. When she asked me if she could take my order, I smiled and enquired in a gentle polite manner if she had been trained in customer relations. The intent of the question was not to offend but to genuinely discover if the chicken store or the management team had trained her and her male counter part for front of house. My question was ignored, so I added “you have to keep an eye on the register when your at front of house”, to make her aware that it is important. At this point the pushy older male customer became animated accusing me of being abusive to her and that she did not have to put up with that etc. All the while he was backing away from me towards the exit, a man of conviction. This is the classic guilt mixed with snap judgement scenario, the old man had pushed in and without knowing what had happened before, the lack of process, he assumed that my question was because she had gone to take his order before me. This type of person is no help and beyond help in fact I consider him a moron because only a moron would get involved wth little or no facts. However, guilt is a funny thing.

Now let me expand, I know I somehow intimidate people by my looks and my honesty but I am very aware of this and try to be super gentle when interacting with people. The female staff member did not appear upset but more surprised. In fact the old man caused more of a scene than anyone, ironic, guilt again. I then proceeded to give my order clearly and distinctly, “4 zee burger combos, regular and 1 pepsi max and 3 sunkist”, she read it back to me “a zee burger combo, 1 pepsi max and 3 sunkist”. I corrected her “No, 4 zee burger combos, regular and 1 pepsi max and 3 sunkist”, she read it back to me “3 zee burger combos, 1 pepsi max and 3 sunkist”. I corrected her again “No, 4 zee burger combos, regular and 1 pepsi max and 3 sunkist”. Finally on the third try she got it correct. Now she may have been flustered by my question or the old man but the question of front of house training seemed rather relevant at this stage.

Anyway the order was thrown together, dropped she asked me if I wanted the receipt, to which I replied “yes” and I left.

The receipt has a survey link on it for feed back, she didn’t inform me of this but I knew anyway. I took the food home and proceeded to fill in the online survey. Needless to say very dissatisfied appeared in more than one box. What was interesting was the question asking about cleanliness. I responded by checking the “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” option, yet in the survey process I was later asked why I gave them a dissatisfied. Poor coding? The fried chicken store can’t listen? Who knows. I responded that I gave a neutral answer in the survey.

Why is your helping not helping? a funny story.

Now I’m a fixer, yes one of those genetically predisposed “idiots” that when I see a problem I feel a need to put it right. Therefore, when I saw a blocked drain I grabbed my set of plumbing springs


and began to clear the drain. Soil, roots the usual mess and eventually the drain was all clear. Now in the meantime my father was helping (yep you know where this is going). So while I was still working on the drain he decided to help by picking up all the soil I had pulled out and put to one side. My helpful father began to scrape up the debris and remove it. I had to move my stack of springs which were near me and the debris, to give him room to work. Now a set of old fashioned plumbing springs have a special tool called a separation key. This key is


designed to hook the end of the spring and pull it, enlarging the spring spiral while you twist it to separate the springs from each other. Now this little tool is a must because the springs become incredibly tightened during use and separating them without this tool is a nightmare. I noticed that my separation key was not near the unused springs. Yep he had somehow picked up a 100mm key and thrown it out, without noticing. Yes thrown it out, he had placed the debris into the garbage bin out on the curb for collection that very day. After some digging and head shaking I found the key and could now get back to cleaning the drain.

These two stories actually have a common thread of helping “going pear shaped” and becoming the opposite of helping.

Validations and Feedback

‘How am I doing so far?’

What a loaded question… When we ask a question like this, are we seeking feedback, or are we seeking validation? Perhaps this is related to the fixed versus growth mindset.

With a fixed mindset, I would be seeking support to validate that I have been doing a great job and that I am considered a superstar.
With a growth mindset, I am truly open to feedback and want to understand how I could improve.

Of course, this then leads us to metrics and the question about how they could be used for feedback and how they might be used for validation.

Rainfall as a metric means that each day we check our rain gauge in the garden and note how many millimetres of rain have fallen in the last 24 hours. This is not feedback – I am fairly certain that the weather systems do not use measurements from our rain gauges to find ways to improve the weather. Instead it is a monitoring metric and we can use it to validate that the mud was slippery outside because we had a lot of rain.

Budgets and tracking the spend against budget looks like a great feedback metric – however, by itself, it is purely for validation. How many of us have been rightly happy that a piece of work we just completed met budget expectations? (Or rightly unhappy if we did not meet the budget expectations?) Remember those feelings for a moment – pride, relief, happiness – or regret, sadness, blame – these are not very helpful if we want to improve how we work and can distract us from seeing other opportunities if we are not careful.

Feedback is when we ask why and how. Back to the budget example, if we ask why we did not meet budget, without blame, we can find out a lot of useful information and opportunities to improve for next time. One of my favourite lean tools is the ‘5 whys‘ – it is fascinating what can be uncovered if we keep asking why (with polite respect, of course). In the case of budgets – it is just as useful to ask why we met as why we did not meet budget – learning what worked well is very useful for next time also.

Validation versus feedback might be one of the root issues with KPI’s – when we are set a target number, it is very tempting to do all that we can to meet that number and then breathe a sigh of relief when we finally meet or exceed it. How many of us have had truly useful conversations about how we did our work, what we learnt and how we can continue to improve in the era of KPI’s? Validation is a very tempting focus and can feel a lot like feedback – but it is hollow praise.

Metrics validation and feedbackIn summary,

  • Validation is when we use metrics to show that we did a good job
  • Feedback is when we ask why or how we got a result

Be careful which outcome we are seeking when selecting and discussing metrics.

How do you judge your worth?

What makes you feel your work is appreciated?

What gives you satisfaction?

What gives you validation?………Metrics?

We all value our time yet we often feel that the real effort we put into something is not appreciated. A friend of mine once told me that “Nothing says thank you, like a pay check!” I laughed but on the whole he was right…. well basically. The actual feeling of worth is not really wrapped up in the amount of money we earn from our efforts. The sense of worth is far more intangible than that. What really makes me feel appreciated is not money but a sense that I have in some way imparted benefit, knowledge or ease. Don’t get me wrong if I’ve just worked an entire week only to get a thanks, I don’t feel appreciated or valued at all. I feel underwhelmed and will not help them ever again because obviously their life and efforts are far more valuable and precious than anyone else’s. Harsh? Not at all, only the way they value others time is.

“Cast not pearls before swine….” So why in all logic would you help/aid such a superior and perfect entity.

The basic fact is often a simple act such as a coffee or just company while I’m helping you out is enough. An experience being shared often eases the burden. This concept seems foreign to most but the simple truth is that as the helpee watches they also learn, maybe by simple osmosis, or by asking questions and even by active involvement.

What about the question of success? How do you gauge how successful you have been in a particular task?

The irony is that regardless of how many people in your lecture or class room, the true measure of success is the impact we have upon others. When a student finally gets it or understands the concept you have been trying to get across to them, then and only then do I feel satisfaction and validation. There are only a handful of people in our lives which impart such an impact upon us and these are the ones who are often not considered successful by the usual measure of things in our society. The quiet achievers and “teachers” who may themselves not know they have actually contributed more to others and as such have led a truly validated existence.

Metrics are often used to give validation or satisfaction yet the actual purpose of metrics is to gauge position. Position of a process. I propose that since satisfaction and validation are somewhat difficult to gauge and define, that we often substitute the more easily measured “metrics”. The ease of measurement does not make ease of satisfaction or validation.

Validation and satisfaction are destinations, metrics aid in keeping us on course and headed in the right direction. Metrics can be alluring and highly convincing but they fall short when we try to find satisfaction and validation. How could a static measurement give anyone a sense of worth?

Think about your own experiences. What gave you satisfaction and a sense of worth? What was the best work environment you ever worked in? Think about it the intangibles play a far greater part than the measurable or “metrics”.

Metrics are finite, cold, short lived and tools. Satisfaction is potentially infinite, long lived and a destination. Validation is warm, ever-lasting and a state of mind.

Initial expectations and pot plants

When you first interact with someone, your mind goes into high acquisitions mode. This is the initial response whenever we experience anything for the first time. Our mind is like a sponge absorbing vast amounts of details about the new experience. This is a good thing evolutionarily speaking because we have a rapid response to new stimuli and therefore a course of action can be evaluated quickly.

Yet this evolutionary advantage has a down side when dealing with others, in the long term.

We are curious animals and love to learn but we also love to experience new things. Now we all know that we all have at sometime switched off during a conversation, we go on auto pilot. This is not a bad thing per se but it does leave us open to the fact we are not driving the car so to speak, we are not actively engaged. This is the vacuum where assumptions and expectations rule and exert their influence, the world of lazy folly.

Consider the way we tend to accumulate information,

  1. Initial uptake, mind is like a sponge absorbing vast amounts of data
  2. Evaluation of new stimuli/experience
  3. Response plan
  4. Course of action

These steps happen subconsciously and often go unnoticed, yet they often become expectations and even assumptions.

So what about the pot plants?

Initial expectations and even assumptions for that matter, often go unnoticed just like the pot around that small plant you bought. You look after the plant, interacting with it on a daily basis, watering, rotating the pot so it grows straight etc. Yet after a few years the plant seems unhappy and stifled. No matter how much you water it, the leaves always seem to droop from lack of water.

How could this be?

The plant has grown enough to be root-bound. Unbeknownst to you and out of sight of all, the roots have wrapped around the pot, strangling the very plant they are meant to feed. Any green thumbed person will tell you, you should have re-potted long ago. In fact generally speaking you should re-pot every 2-3 years depending on plant vigour.

Back to initial expectations…...

Your parents still treat you like a kid, even though you have kid of your own.
Your siblings still treat you like their baby brother or sister.
Your friends from high school still see you as you were way back then.

These all sound familiar and are all based on the same idea of the root bound pot plant. The initial interactions laid the ground work for the initial expectations and assumptions. Just like the roots of a plant, things change even if you don’t see them. So over time your initial expectations of a person or situation, even if accurate at the time, will drift.

It is these subconscious initial expectations that remain static, just like the pot around our plant and just like the pot we rarely re-evaluate (re-pot) them. So maybe we should revisit our initial expectations and be aware of them.


Imagine a discussion between managers.

Manager A – ‘How do think person X is performing?’

Manager B – ‘Doing a great job – understands what the need is and then delivers the outcome every time.’

Manager A – ‘Thanks – sounds good, I’ll count that as a ‘meets expectations’ in the review.’

Manager B – ‘Well, actually, I think that X exceeded my expectations – did you know that they have 5 years of delivery experience under their belt? I think that we are under-utilising X.’

Manager A – ‘Yeah – but they’re not really leadership material – I don’t think they will ever get above their current level in the company.’

Manager B – ‘That’s not their expectation – X has high potential, depth of experience and took this role to learn more about our part of the company. Have you had a discussion with X about their career goals and experience?’

Manager A – ‘Umm, Yes – but they don’t seem to be leadership material, I guess they will be disappointed…’

A and BThis imaginary conversation contains many examples of expectations – One manager has high and the other low expectations of person X and person X has high expectations of themselves. I believe that people are capable of living up to our high expectations and also of living down to our low expectations and whatever our expectations are, they will sense and comply.

This is an important insight – our expectations are similar to assumptions and can be very tricky to surface. This means that they will become part of our subconscious and we are likely to transmit our expectations in ways that we cannot easily control such as body language, tone and our sentence construction.

So what can we do about it?

Any time we think that someone is doing an average or poor job, take a moment to reflect if it could be a bit of confirmation bias (that we always thought they were only capable of average or low quality and we have been selective in our observations to support this view). If this is the case, then imagine the best performer you have met and that this person has the potential to be just as great. Of course this applies in our non-workplace relationships as well – so we can get plenty of opportunities to reflect and practice in safe environments.

If we are not certain that a major factor is our own expectations, then find a couple of other people and sound them out about the person in question. Be very careful with this approach, because it is very easy for other people to pick up your expectations of others and answer in ways that will add to the confirmation bias.

In summary, expectations could be a major factor in productivity in the workplace – I wonder what would happen if everyone believed that their staff and colleagues were capable of achieving awesome instead of mediocre?

Expectations and Empowerment bizarre possibilities.

So what if the goal is to enable the empowerment of staff, how can we possibly accomplish this when human nature and culture on the whole is risk averse?

Most of us expect negative results when we fail, this is basic survival. Yet we also know that the greatest rewards are often obtained when we seek opportunities and stretch outside comfort zones. These less travelled paths often are avoided because of the risk of failure and the expectation of “punishment” or negative results. The strange thing is, that as companies become larger they are often forced into previously unfamiliar territory. This very risk is often were the benefits lie.

Yet in an established hierarchy the management and staff often feel that it is better to remain inert rather than proactive and acting upon possible opportunities. We have negative expectations when we see opportunities. Often even though the answers are obvious and easily implemented, we stand idle because it’s outside our pay grade or we want/need higher management permission to enact any action or change.

This form of initiative blockage is systemic in most work environments, so how could we get around this blockage? The answer may just be as simple as the problem. We use a “get out of jail free card” strategy. If you give your management team or even expert staff an exemption card, if something goes wrong during a project they could utilise it and the entire issue is for all intents and purposes a blank slate, written on a piece of paper and thrown in the bin, never to be remarked upon ever again. This reset, enables the expectation that even if things do not work out for what ever reason then the risk averse bias is negated to a certain extent by the exemption card. Obviously this is not meant to be carte blanche but a method to alleviate the bottlenecking and allowing staff of all levels to maximise opportunities, developing skill of evaluation and risk assessment along the way, all within a professional framework.

Expectations Pressures and Self

The word expectations invokes different things for different people, yet most of us see it as a negative. Comments like “What did you expect?”, “Don’t get your hopes up.”, “Manage your expectations.” sound all too familiar. They all cast expectations in a negative light to varying degrees.

So why do we dread expectations and see them in a negative way? The simple answer is FEAR, the most basic driving force that we humans seem to indulge in on a daily basis.

Fear of failure, fear of being let down, fear of not being good enough and the list goes on and on.  The interesting fact is that we divide expectations and fear. By pulling these two intertwined threads, we obscure the reason for our dread of expectations, which is due to our internal fears and the way we perceive others will see us. I leave you with that thought, give it some pause and contemplate how fear impacts the way we behave.

Expectations, pressure and self, heavy stuff but basically both expectations and pressure are impacted by the latter, Self. We all make our own reality and in doing so sculpt the perspectives of others.

The word expectations predominantly has a cautionary negativity about it but it is also seen as an external force. I know that expectations commonly are exerted upon us from the outside, project, boss, peers, family….etc. Yet we overlook, the more important expectations those we carry within. We all carry these expectations of Self but we tend not to acknowledge them.

Small children tend to have no real fear of failure or how others will see them. How often have you heard a small child say “I can do that !”, even though they have never done it before? They are not inhibited by expectation either external or internal, they carry a self expectation that they can do anything and be good at it. Adults on the other hand become nervous and fearful of any potential failure, tending to exert massive amounts of stress upon themselves and adversely impacting the experience and even the outcome at times.

You see self-expectations are often overlooked but I believe they are the most powerful of all expectations. The image of self and how it impacts our behaviours and responses is a vast topic, I will not go into detail here but I will hopefully cast some light upon the issue, so as to help you along the path of self awareness about the Self-expectations we all carry.

These self-expectations that we have, often limit our advancement and stifle our ability to succeed. How often have we hesitated despite the obvious. This can be seen often in a career path where we settle in and get comfortable. We expect that comfort, and this feeling of comfort should be there, all the while slowly becoming oblivious to the need to stretch ourselves, so we can grow and feel a sense of accomplishment.

I’m not just talking about our salary or pay, although this is a very common symptom of the self-limiting expectations but the growing dissatisfaction from our own fear driven self-expectations. If you feel you could contribute or do a task better, why don’t you? The instinct is to keep your head down and bum up but at what cost to yourself and the group. The loudest and most assertive among us are not always the best suited to the task at hand.

Yet often we down-size our expectations to suit our comfortable stride.