The downside of being helpful

Being a team player. Supporting other people. Helping your colleagues. Many women see these behaviours as their strengths. Recently however, I heard a thought-provoking comment about strengths.

A colleague confidently proclaimed ‘Well, when you over-use a strength it becomes a limiting force.’ I wonder if you agree with this statement? It certainly had an impact on me.


Can women be too helpful?

That throw-a-way comment got me thinking about the downside of women spending time helping other people. I realised that many women give too much time and energy to others. The result is that they fail to focus on their own needs, priorities and career development. In the short-term this doesn’t matter. However, over the course of your career it can make a huge difference to your success.  Here are some examples of women over-helping.

  • An engineer spends hours ‘drafting’ presentations for her boss to deliver at an industry conference. Who gets the credit for all the great ideas in that speech?
  • A team leader prides herself on helping her staff complete ‘boring’ tasks like data entry. What strategic tasks is this leader neglecting in order to fit in this work?
  • A PhD student does unpaid editing of her supervisor’s new book. All without any recognition or reward.
  • A team member ‘holds the fort’ while everyone else goes on the team planning day. She misses out on having a say in the team’s strategy for the next 12 months, as well as the opportunity to deepen relationships with her peers.
  • An administrative assistant stays back late to compensate for a colleague’s lack of productivity. Her low assertiveness means she gets more work and no thanks.
  • In each of these scenarios, women are helping others at their own expense.

What’s the cost of being too helpful?

As a professional woman, you’ve probably experienced similar situations at some point in your career. I wonder what the cost of your helpfulness may have been over the long-term? Do any of these consequences resonate with you?

  • Other people taking the credit for your work
  • Lost networking opportunities
  • Reduced credibility and visibility in your business
  • Less energy to spend on your major projects (yes, the ones that really matter and add substance your CV)
  • Less time to write profile-building articles or blog posts – resulting in less professional impact and longer gaps between promotions

Of course, I am not suggesting that women should always say ‘no’ to being helpful. But I am proposing that you should think twice before doing so. You need to keep your strategic priorities in mind before volunteering to help others with theirs. Otherwise, you’ll end up with lots of problems that no-one will help you to solve.

What’s the solution? 

Let’s face it. All women have the same number of hours in a day. If you give half those hours to other people, it will be YOUR career that is impacted. To thrive professionally, you need to dedicate regular time to networking, profile-raising, personal development and publishing your ideas online. These are all activities women frequently put on the back-burner, in order to make time for others. But you need to change that habit now. Here are my top tips for doing this.

  • Set three career goals for yourself right now. These might include starting a blog, attending a networking group or asking colleagues to post testimonials on your LinkedIn page
  • Start each day by doing one task that will help you achieve your goals
  • Learn how to set boundaries and limits (check out my video on how to do this if you need some tips)

Feel inspired to shift your habits? 

Start by listing your key priorities for the year. Then make a commitment to spend time on these priorities every day. You’ll have to say ‘no’ to other people if you want to focus on these goals! Oh. And make sure you read my next article on how to find time to blog.

About the author of this article

Eleanor Shakiba works with women in high intellect professions – such as academia, education, project management, research and development engineering, finance and health. She specialises in training and coaching high potential professionals who need help overcoming career barriers. Eleanor holds qualifications in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.