Many idioms referring to human behaviour are based on analogies to parts of the body, especially arms, hands and fingers (e.g.: to keep one’s fingers crossed, all hands on deck, elbow room, to be on hand, keep her at arm’s length, he is all thumbs, he would not lift a finger, give someone a free hand, work one’s fingers to the bone, etc.). The idiom, “lend a (helping) hand”, probably originated as early as the “Old English” of the 9th Century, but was popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer, one of the greatest English poets of the Middle Ages (1343 – 1400, best known for The Canterbury Tales). The phrase simply means “to assist”, “support” or “offer aid”. It does not mean to do the work for another, but suggests combined effort and equal amounts of energy being applied. The phrase has thus a teamwork idea or component to it and implies that the job will get done more efficiently and effectively if all work on the project together.
What does “lend a (helping) hand”, however, mean for those in 21st Century leadership positions, especially for those leading teams in companies? It certainly does not mean that the boss has to roll up his/her sleeves and do the work for the employees, although many expect exactly this. Employees are hired not just for their hands and feet, but also for their hearts and minds – they should thus be utilising all of their strengths and giftedness in the workplace to make their best contributions. To “lend a hand” as a manager implies a facilitator role – this is where the best effort of all employees is solicited from them. Facilitation comprises the following characteristics:
- Setting an example – walking the “company values” talk and demonstrating complete engagement with the company’s vision, strategy and goals. When a manager is highly engaged, employees are also more likely to be engaged. This example should be accompanied by commitment to quality, service, performance, teamwork, meeting deadlines and ultimately accountability.
- Facilitating problem-solving – not providing solutions. As mentioned above, employees are hired to think, to be innovative, to come up with ideas and to participate in improvements. Managers should create opportunities for these forms of discussions to give all an opportunity to participate in work process and product improvements.
- Consistent and constant communication – no withholding of information, but consistently offering the same messages repeatedly. These company messages speak to values, congruent and aligned behaviour and vision.
- Listening well to feedback – not just the facts, but the sometimes hidden emotions too. The ability to listen well is a key facilitation skill and enables the manager to sense the prevailing emotional environment/culture of the organisation.
- Support – standing up for the team, protecting them, being accountable with them and offering emotional support and leadership presence during times of stress and overload. It also involves representing their concerns and fears to higher levels where necessary.
- Performance management – this is a daily practise of honing people’s skills and focusing the team on achieving targets and realising team victories. Both good and poor performance should be addressed immediately – giving praise or counsel respectively where necessary.
- Having fun – a well-balanced leadership approach looks for opportunities for the team to have fun whilst they work. This is easily done by remembering milestones, celebrating significant events and special performance, making sure that effort and individual and team wins are recognised, hosting award ceremonies and the like.
Managers of the 21st Century need to lend a helping hand, but this involves facilitation, not work of a physical nature necessarily. Authentic facilitation brings out the best of the human being and develops pride and value in the workplace.