how can I stop being so helpful to coworkers?

A reader writes:

I really need help putting some feedback my boss has given me into practice. This isn’t once-off feedback — it’s ongoing feedback over a period of months. I understand and agree with the reasons, I want to do it, and I know that it’s affecting my employment prospects. I just struggle to put it in to practice. So with all of that build up — and I’m sure you’ll laugh when you hear it — I need to be less helpful.

Reasons for the feedback: People don’t know that I’m only in the budget for a bit longer and that my boss is working to move me to an unrelated area. People need to learn/take responsibility for certain things instead of knowing that I’m there to help. Some of this stuff is not my responsibility and is cutting into the things that are.

Reasons I’m struggling: I don’t recognize the situations when they start. If I do recognize them (before/during), I don’t know how to pull out. I had a prior role where if I didn’t do this, I’d end up having to clean up the mess anyway. Helping is how I build work relationships. Helping/being seen as smart makes me feel good about myself.

I’ve created lots of manuals, I try to have people do the work while I talk them through it, etc. But we’re short staffed, things have to be done, our customers need it done now, and sometimes it’s just quicker for me to be helpful. I’ve suggested working from home for a period so I’m less accessible. My boss doesn’t think this is a good idea as I need work on this, not work around it.

So how can I reduce my helpfulness and stop being the go-to person?

You know how writing a to-do list can help keep you focused on the things you need to do? In your case, you need a not-to-do list.

I’m serious! Write down a list of all the things that you should not be helping with. There’s something about writing this kind of thing down that lodges it in your brain in a more official way and makes you remember the next time one of those items comes up that you’ve committed not to do them.

You can also write a list of responses to use when people ask you for help with those things, so that you’re prepared and don’t end up just agreeing to help because that’s the first response that comes into your mind. Things to put on your response list:
* “Fergus has asked me not to work on that because of other priorities. I’m sorry I can’t help!”
* “I know I’ve helped with this in the past, but Fergus has asked me not to assist with that anymore. I think he wants you and Jane to handle that yourselves. But there are pretty detailed instructions in the manual to walk you through it!”

It would probably also help to explain it to your coworkers now rather than waiting until they come to you with a request for help. You could say something like this: “I wanted to let you know that Fergus has asked me not to work on X or Y anymore because it’s cutting into my time for X. I know in the past I’ve been able to do those for you, so I wanted to give you heads-up that I can’t in the future.”

Also, you mentioned that people don’t know that you’re only in the budget for a bit longer. Any reason you can’t tell them? Being able to explain that would allow you to say, “Fergus wants to make sure people know how to do X and Y on their own before I’m gone.”

I think, too, that it’s important to get really clear in your own mind on the fact that being helpful in your traditional ways is making you less good at the job you’ve been hired to do, at least in your boss’s eyes. That’s a big deal. It’s not helpful, after all, if the person you hired to X doesn’t excel at X because she gets distracted by Y. Right now I think you see helpfulness as purely a good thing … but it’s not, not when it takes you away from more important things. So you probably need to reframe your ideas about “helpfulness” and when it’s good and when it’s not so good.

And last, you supplied a really insightful list of what you’re getting out of being helpful now. Take a look at other ways to achieve those things. For example, you can build work relationships and be seen as smart simply by being great at your core work and being warm and friendly to colleagues! Really, you don’t need to do their work for them in order to achieve those things. And in fact, you will probably build a better reputation in the long run if you do preserve better boundaries, because you won’t be seen as a pushover (not saying that you are now, but it’s possible) and you’ll have more time to devote to reaching your own work goals, rather than someone else’s.

Listen to your boss on this one.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 195 comments… read them below }

  1. Mabel*

    For those of us who get some of our self-worth from helping others, this one can be difficult. But if you follow Alison’s (and your boss’s) instructions, even though it really goes against your grain, you will probably find that it’s not as excruciating as you thought. And after you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ll see the benefits more clearly. As you might guess, this was my experience when I was in a similar situation. Best of luck!

    1. OP*

      I’m currently finding it excruciating to go against the grain. Did you experience that? If so are there things that helped to get through/over it?

      1. Mabel*

        Yes, I thought people would think I was a jerk or that they wouldn’t want to work with me (or be friends with me – for non-work situations). I was in therapy, so that helped a lot because I had regular positive reinforcement that I was doing something good for myself (and for others) by pulling back.

        I also looked at it from another point of view: by jumping in to help people, I was essentially saying that they are not capable of doing the tasks themselves. And that’s pretty insulting (it’s irrelevant if the people you’re helping don’t see it this way), and not really helping because it’s making sure those people will continue to need help and not be able to stand on their own.

        I have also found that, in general, when I do something new, I don’t see the benefits until later and that I just need to keep doing the new thing and trust that how I feel about it will get better (a lot better, usually a 180 degree shift).

        1. Jessesgirl72*

          I would say that it’s irrelevant that the people you’re helping don’t see it that way, but also- they might actually being taking it exactly that the person “helping” them doesn’t think they can do the thing, when they jump in and take over.

          1. TootsNYC*

            My direct report does react this way–I have to really be sure I’m stepping back a lot.

            But then, he also isn’t asking directly for help.

            1. Kira*

              Toots, I’d also point out that by you “helping” when he hasn’t requested help, you might be setting up a system where you’re essentially going to double check everything. I would have learned more/become more confident if my boss had been less hands on. E.g. instead of her proofreading and rewriting every email I wrote, she could have asked me if I had proofread or considered XYZ.

              1. TootsNYC*

                Oh, he’s confident–he doesn’t need -any- training at all. That’s part of why he minds it so much if I try to “help” him with stuff.

                He’s not asking–but I do have to fight my “Oh, I’ll help you!” instincts.

                On a list I have of ways to show respect for those who work for you (and with you) is: Don’t do it for them.

      2. 2 Cents*

        You’re teaching the man to fish, not fishing for him every day. In the end, you are helping your coworkers because they should know how this stuff is supposed to be done. By doing it for them, you’re enabling their helplessness.

    2. LizzE*

      I am someone who gains self-worth through helping others. It can be debilitating to the point I fear my only social collateral comes from being helpful and that I will lose it if I start pushing back. I am working on it, but the fear of losing my likability always lingers.

      1. Jamie*

        I love the phrase social collateral. And this conversation is fascinating and is giving me insight into my mom who couldn’t help herself from helping. (In the genuinely helpful, not controlling, way.)

        Apparently this affliction skips a generation because I’m not particularly helpful and saying no comes second nature to me. :)

      2. NonProfit Nancy*

        I would agree, a lot of people arrive at this place out of low self esteem. If this rings a bell for you OP it’s something a counselor can work on with you (if not feel free to ignore). But the people pleasers in my life have expressed sentiments of “this is all I’m good for” or “nobody will like me if I don’t X and Y for them.” I’d say that’s not a healthy self perception and it doesn’t have to be that way.

    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      OP, try reframing it like this: you’re not helping them. If you like being helpful and smart, you’re not doing that – you’re serving as a human crutch and prolonging your indispensability in a role you’re transitioning out of. If you like building work relationships, the relationship you’re building is dependence. You are not helping yourself, your coworkers, or your boss, you’re undermining their future performance and independence.

      As a bonus, that all happens to be true.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        That’s a good point. Training people to rely on you for things they will at some point need to do themselves is the opposite of helpful. It feels helpful in the moment and rude to not help when you can, but in the long run, it’s the opposite of what you’re trying to be.

      2. OP*

        I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here. I think I’ve built my sense of work self worth on being indispensable. This has hurt me by keeping me in roles I don’t want and has been a big contributor of burnout. My boss has been more forthcoming about how this has also hurt him. Hard to hear but necessary. And I know that enabling coworkers instead of empowering them stunts them. Hopefully this will help me reframe it.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          One thing to consider is that being indispensable is great….if you’re in it for the long haul. Your boss is trying to transfer you to other responsibilities ASAP, though, and your current responsibilities have been extended past their expected end date. Being indispensable is the last thing you (and your boss!) want and need at this point.

        2. Kyrielle*

          AH! Our patterns are different, but that word – one way I found helpful for me in framing how I needed to pass on knowledge was, “I want to be *invaluable*, not *indispensible*.” That is, I want to know the business *could* go on without me – especially if I’m on vacation – but that they’d really rather not have to.

          In that sense, my coworkers *must* be given the same knowledge I have and the chance to fly on their own. The fact that if I’m not there, my actual work-load would fall to others? That’s the part that makes me invaluable.

          Interestingly enough, one of the definitions for ‘invaluable’ is ‘indispensible’ in some cases, but that’s not the one I wanted or was thinking of – it’s the idea of ‘valuable beyond measure’. But still someone they could live without, say, if I want to spend a week hiking, or curled up with a series of good books, or if I win the lottery and vanish off in a puff of video games. Uh, I mean, intellectually enriching books and socially-valuable volunteering. Really.

          1. Mabel*

            I was just thinking something similar as I re-read through the comments. I worry about my employment situation, and I often think about what I can do that would make me “indispensable.” But even thought it seems like that would make my job safer, I’ve come to realize it’s not a good idea because it means I’m relating to myself as though this is the best I can do (and that I’d better dig in and hope my employers agree that I’m indispensable). I’d rather feel more secure in my job because of the value I add to my team. Easier said than done, but I’m working on it.

          2. Jadelyn*

            Oh my god, thank you for this framing. Seriously. I’ve got some Issues stemming from a combination of toxic workplaces and some childhood Stuff, and basically the upshot is that I have the same hangup on needing to feel like I’m indispensible. (Spend 3 years temping while desperately trying to get hired for real, have promises of temp-to-hire yanked out from under you a few times, it tends to create that kind of neediness.)

            I’m finally, finally starting to be able to see myself as valuable even if the world could keep spinning without me, but it’s been super hard. And this is incredibly helpful! *Could* everyone manage without me? The answer should be “yes, but they wouldn’t want to,” and that should be enough.

            It’s just really hard to realign yourself so that that *is* enough.

        3. Kira*

          I love how your boss is sharing that he’s worked on this as well. Maybe one helpful framing is that you aren’t being helpful so much as you’re being easily distracted. I love chipping in to help coworkers and clients with things I can help with and know more about than they do, but my boss is paying me to work on ABC.

          I’m also struggling with the wimp/dictator approach to saying “no”. I enjoy saying yes and impressing people, but every time I say no I feel like it comes across as a stickler to the rules, like I’m saying “that’s the way it is, deal with it” more harshly than how I view myself.

          1. Teclatrans*

            Yes, distraction. I love helping, it gives me such a dopamine hit. And doing something that feels easy + helps someone? So much more attractive than following through on my own work, which doesn’t have so many lovely positive feedback loops built in. Ego and social status played a role in my late-teen and young-adult years, but even now that I have worked through those issues, I still thrill to the combo of helpfulness + demonstrating (and experiencing) competence + stepping away from the complexity and frustration of my own work.

  2. Trix*

    As someone who also feels good about herself when she is seen as helpful and smart, and as someone who has also recently found out that I won’t be in this role much longer due to budget, I so feel you. This is really timely for me, so I’m definitely going to take this to heart.

    I’ve started a “to do” list to get things wrapped up before I leave, but I love the idea of a “not to do” list as well. Sounds like a really useful way to keep me focused.

    Good luck to you, OP!

  3. AlexandrinaVictoria*

    I have the same problem. In my situation, I’ve had to step back a bit due to health problems causing me to miss quite a bit of work, and other people having to take over some of my tasks. Sometimes it’s disheartening to see how well they do without me! So I understand how hard it can be to be “hands-off.” People will get used to it!

  4. Thomas E*

    “I’m sorry but Sam has asked me to focus on Teapot spouts. You need to ask him if you need me on any other tasks.”

    1. AMG*

      And to piggyback onto that, provide some guidelines, resource, person, template, etc. that people can use to figure I out themselves.

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I feel your pain in so many ways. Far too many people come to me for hand-holding on issues that are unrelated to the ones I work on! For example, I did a training on how to update the website, and for many months, a handful of people came to me to fix their computers. I can’t tell you how many requests I get from one person to copy something from a website link, paste the text into the reply, and send it back to her. Another woman, who’d never met before in my life, asked me to sign off on an expense report.

    Once you’re known for demonstrating competency on matter(s) that multiple people struggle, you get a reputation for being able to do anything, regardless if that’s true.

    In addition to developing a script, I’d also advise you to keep pushing people back onto any written instructions/manuals. Initially, they’ll come to you because they don’t want to mess around with that, but don’t let them — yes, even if it’s easier and especially if a client is waiting right there. (The latter is a wonderful incentive for someone to master a skill.) It may be easier in the short-term, but you’re enabling bad behavior in the long-term.

    Finally, I encourage you to read the relevant section in Pat Heim’s book, “Hardball for Women.” Yes, it’s targeted at common female behaviors in the workplace, but, if you’re a guy, don’t let that deter you. She has a whole chapter on constant helping, and why it’s so, so bad. Her advice applies to both genders.

      1. Marisol*

        I found that book to be extremely helpful. Got the reco from someone on this forum. Wonder if it was Snarkus?

    1. OP*

      I hear you on being competent in somethings suddenly equating to “oh you can help me with this unrelated thing”. And I’ve reinforced that over time because if I don’t know it I know who or where to point you to.

      I mentioned below that I’m starting to see some changes with people checking the manuals first or trying to work it out themselves. So that’s good. I’ll have to keep pushing it though.

      Thanks for the book recommendation. Will have to check it out. Might have been helpful when I was starting out as I think I’ve probably made a lot mistakes that can be common to women.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        The book is a fantastic resource. If you read AAM a lot, you’ll see a lot of overlap in the advice. The book takes it a step further with stats, research, and great stories from interviews with managers on how they view certain types of behavior from both genders.

        Another benefit of this book is that it delves into why women and men behave the way they do at work. The good news is if you’re guilty of any of bad behaviors, you shouldn’t feel bad because chances are that’s how you were socialized and those habits are tough to break. I’m sure you can attest to that, OP!

        Lastly, if anyone would like to get a general sense of what this book is about, feel free to check out this interview with the author:

      2. MillersSpring*

        I think you have to build a new mantra of “Not My Job.” When you’re good at something, maybe writing or Excel spreadsheets, and helping others stokes your self-esteem, you’ll fall into your current trap of helping at each opportunity.

        Remind yourself: “Yes, that’s my skill, but it’s not my job.”

        1. Kira*

          Ooh, great way of framing it. I was in a situation like OP where I had skills that my senior coworkers wanted me to apply to their projects. Saying “my job is to focus on ABC” caused them to try to get my job changed. It got to the point where I knew I was leaving, and my coworkers (who didn’t know I was leaving) were trying to get the job description changed to cover the things I had skills in, not the things I’d been hired to do. That would have been interesting for my replacement!

    2. Leslie Knope*

      I also recommend “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office”. It was recommended to me by a senior female exec when I started out.

      I’m a chronic “helper”. Part of what I’m practicing right now is (1) not jumping into things I’m not specifically asked to do (i.e. hearing technologically challenged people struggle with something simple and walking over to tell them how to fix it), (2) discussing not only my workload but the PRIORITIES of that workload with my boss at least weekly, (3) having a script I stick to “Oh, actually, Bossman really needs me to finish X right now. I’d take a look at Manual ABC for that issue though!” and (4) finding other ways outside of work to feel valued. For example, I’m currently on a non profit board, I comment on this blog (haha), share book recommendations with friends, et This means that I don’t define helping Moana in the office as the way I feel helpful.

      1. OP*

        Even if you hadn’t made other good points I’ll have to respond solely because I also use bossman.

        I’ve read that book – it’s currently sitting on my shelf. I think I’ll need to reread it as I may have been a bit dismissive/defensive when I read it.

        Your (1) is one of my biggest struggles at the moment. It’s a tough one to crack. I’m putting the headphones on and cranking the music because if I can’t hear I can’t jump in.

        Bossman and I do discuss priorities. I try to make them my focus. Just need to work on pushing through the ones I don’t want to do instead of getting distracted by being helpful.

        Will need to find a low key/energy way to be helpful as I’m currently burnt out.

        1. Wanna-Alp*

          Yes yes use those headphones!!!!

          Another script for (3): “What did you try already?” If they haven’t tried anything, then you turn them right back round and tell them to go to the obvious place. You want to change it so that they understand that they are never going to get solutions from you, only directions to where they can dig out solutions for themselves. But they have to do the effort and wield the spade!

          If they did try something, then you can direct them to the less obvious place to try. And your helping will have been narrowed to those who really really need it, not those who didn’t bother to remember how they managed it last time.

        2. Leslie Knope*

          I am so bad at #1. Like seriously.

          Someone on the other side of a cube from me recently was asking out loud: “What does iOS even stand for. What does that mean?” Hahaha I think I had an aneurysm lolol.

          It’s really challenging and I think a reason why it makes me frustrated is one of the most important things to me is “lifelong learning”. Therefore, I value researching and googling and trying to figure things out on my own. I really enjoy figuring things out! So sometimes I erroneously apply my value framework onto others around me thinking that they’d want what I want.

    3. Chaordic One*

      I too, Second the recommendation.

      Even though it is targeted to women, the advice and techniques can be used by anyone, especially those who are a little “too helpful” and that includes a fair number of men.

  6. NoMoreMrFixit*

    Super guilty on this one. You have to push yourself to point people at the existing resources such as the manuals you’ve created. It won’t be easy as you’re fighting your natural and conditioned instincts on this. I found having daily task lists to work towards kept me on track. If your boss can nicely help back you up on this it will go much easier than pushing people away by yourself.

    1. Mabel*

      And it’s true that people will figure things out for themselves if they have to. Or they’ll ask their managers or someone else. I’m a subject matter expert for a particular program at work, so people are supposed to come to me with questions, but recently I haven’t gotten back to a couple of people immediately, and they have emailed me back saying they figured it out when they didn’t get immediate help. (They weren’t upset about not getting immediate help, BTW. These emails were within the same day. I don’t want you to think people will think you’re falling down on the job – especially since helping them is the opposite your job.)

      1. OP*

        You got me. Within the company I’ve become the sme for a couple of different programs. Have you experience stepping away from being an sme will still being in the same company?

        I think I need to get clarification from my boss as to what level of competency most people need to get to and if there is someone who should be trained to be the sme.

        1. MillersSpring*

          Empower yourself to use language such as, “I’m stepping away from being the SME for that,” or “I need to let Jane be the SME for that.”

          Ask if others can be trained or developed into the SME. It may be the perfect opportunity for someone else to stretch and increase their value.

  7. Allypopx*

    My workload eventually got to the point where I had to stop being this person, and my quality of work-life has increased dramatically. And people still like me just fine.

    For this kind of thing I found some luck with “Oh gosh I really just don’t have time to deal with that right now, but check the manual and if you need anything clarified just shoot me an email and I’ll get back to you when I have a chance!” (I don’t actually say gosh I don’t know why that just came out in writing but I’m leaving it in.) Wean yourself down. You can still be helpful without being super involved by just lending your knowledge here and there, and people will also be forced to learn how to do it without you.

  8. Jessesgirl72*

    OP, another thing to consider: Are you actually (and only) helping the person assigned to the task? Or, in your impatience with them not doing it “right”, are you taking over the task entirely? “our customers need it done now, and sometimes it’s just quicker for me to be helpful” leads me to believe that perhaps the reason the others aren’t learning to do the tasks is because, rather than helping them learn the best way to succeed on their own, even if it takes longer, you are taking their tasks from them. That your own work is also suffering as a result just makes this worse. It’s *not* helpful, and it’s not pleasant to be the person who wants to learn and is being blocked by someone who believes they need to do my job for me. That doesn’t make me like them- quite the opposite! What is actually helpful is to encourage someone else and tell them they are just as smart and can figure this stuff out without you, rather than basking in the feels of their admiration.

    I understand- I really do. I like being “The Smart One” and I always want people to like me. But I had to learn that people don’t really like a know-it-all, that my tactics were actually making them fell bad about themselves, and that even if it takes longer and is a struggle, the way to really help someone is to encourage them to be completely independent of my “help”

    1. orchidsandtea*

      And actually, “Awesome Cheerleader and Guide” is an even more useful and appreciated coworker than “Endlessly Helpful Person”. If you save me from a task, I’m briefly grateful (but complacent). If you show me how to be a rockstar, while being warm and kind, I will smile every time I say your name.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        And honestly, there’s nothing that lifts me more than seeing one of my little birds fly!

        I *think* all kinds of sarcastic and impatient things at them sometimes. I *say* “Oh, it’s not that hard, and it will go better if you’re not afraid of it! Just try X, Y, or Z” or “Hmm, you’re right, that is a little tricky. Here is how I coped with making sure I didn’t get caught by that part” Calm, cheerful, and if I have to correct a mistake, I do it matter of factly, and keep all judgement of the 15! errors in one short document entirely in my head- or do a “Can you BELIEVE?” to my husband at home. ;)

        1. OP*

          I used to be able to help people fly. In my previous company I had a couple of staff start in a position and within a day/week they wanted to go back to their old roles because it was too hard/difficult/they’ll never get it. I was able to coach them through it and they excelled. If they had of wanted to I would have officially made them formal team leaders. Will have to think on what’s changed since then.

          I guess part of my issue isn’t that they have/may make mistakes, it’s that something I’ve done/not done has allowed that to occur. Which is really narcissistic now that I think of it.

        2. Chaordic One*

          And honestly, there’s nothing that lifts me more than seeing one of my little birds fly!

          I really do understand the point that everyone is trying to make. Dysfuctional Teapots has high rates of turnover combined with a large number seasonal employees who might work there for the summer and who then found something better to do. So many of my little birds fly right out the window taking what I’ve taught them with them. It is so frustrating!

    2. OP*

      I understand where you’re coming from. I try (or at least I think I do) to have the other person take control and step them through it. And if, where it’s suddenly become more involved/complicated, I’ve taken over I’ve tried to let them know why I’m taking over and to debrief them on it after it has been resolved.

      I believe in teaching people to fish. Sometimes that comes up against my control tendencies. So being somewhat aware of that, were there specific types of behaviour etc that you found were the tipping point between being helped and being controlled? I’m hoping that knowing what to look out for will help be from overstepping the line.

      1. Jessesgirl72*

        Taking it over when it’s “too complicated” indicates that you don’t trust them to handle it. And you don’t. One sign that you’re going too far is if you are taking over someone’s keyboard! Yes , it will take longer, but don’t take the task on yourself. Keep walking them through and explaining. If they don’t seem to be getting your explanation, stop and figure out how to explain it differently in way that they might understand better. Ask them questions to figure out what specifics they are struggling with, and concentrate on that aspect to straighten them out. Or just walk away for awhile and give them the space to work it out on their own.

        And honestly, you just have to learn to let go. You only have the right and responsibility to control yourself and your own tasks. You need to allow others to succeed or fail in their own way- and the room to succeed in ways that you didn’t imagine! Probably, having things I thought were “wrong” work out fine- or better!- than my way is what helped me the most in learning to let things be.

        1. OP*

          Sorry if I’m pushing back. Would your response change if things had to be done by a x time which was rapidly approaching and there wasn’t time to step through it?

          But you’re right I do need to work on not taking over someone’s computer (I’ve even done it with the boss). I might try keeping something in my hands, crossing my arms, putting my arms behind my back or even sitting on my hands.

          In my last company part of my role was cleaning up other people’s messes. I’ve become conditioned to find ways to prevent messes from occurring in the first place. It is something I need to work on breaking.

          1. mamabear*

            OP, I just want you to know that you sound very self-aware. I see a lot of myself in your post and follow ups. I think a lot of us need help in becoming less helpful, especially if we started our careers in one of those “pants on fire” environments where fixing problems before they started became a survival skill.

          2. Jessesgirl72*

            No, it doesn’t change my response at all. There are lessons in failure- sometimes to the coworker, and sometimes to the higher ups who are setting unrealistic deadlines and staffing levels. If a deadline slips, a deadline slips, and the natural consequences from that are lessons. For everyone.

            But even if my opinion was swayed by your argument, it wouldn’t matter. Your *boss* has told you to stop. Repeatedly. That means instead of justifying your actions, you need to stop them.

            1. OP*

              Thanks for pushing back on me. It’s highlighting areas I’m still resisting and forcing me to reexamine them.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              I had to learn the lesson about how it is UNwise to interfere with other people’s learning experiences.
              For one thing this is a good way to get myself injured. (Picture helping someone who does not want help, for example.)

              And secondly, there is a flow to life such that if the person does not learn from their experience the first time, the situation KEEPS happening until they do learn. In other words, I am ensuring I will have a lot more work if I block someone else’s learning experience.

              OP, think of parenting. Imagine a parent who does everything for a child. That child does not grow up loving them, just the opposite, that child becomes an adult how hates their parent for smothering them. When it feels like people really like you because you helped them, that could be an illusion OP. Just wanted to put that out there.

              In real relationships, people like us for who we are, not for what we can do for them.

          3. Serin*

            Practice sending a “just passing by” message with your entire body language.
            – When someone calls you over with a question, pick up something that needs to be taken somewhere. Empty mug that needs to be filled with coffee, piece of paper that needs to go to the shredder or the recycle bin, used-up pen that needs to be taken down to the storage closet to remind you to grab a new one — something in your hands that tells everyone (including you) that you’ve just dropped by your co-worker’s desk on your way to somewhere else.
            – Don’t sit down.
            – Stand where you can see the questioner’s face, not their computer screen.

            Also, make them write things down. Begin by saying, “Grab a pen and I’ll tell you the basics.” Then stop and don’t start until they’re ready to take notes. Tell them a step and don’t continue until you see them write it down.

        2. Kira*

          Following on Jessesgirl comment about taking over the keyboard: I was passing responsibility for a task to a coworker, and had written guides that I thought covered all the things she’d need guidance on. Whenever she called me over because something wasn’t in the guide, I discussed my overall approach with her (I handle it like this because it’ll be useful here) and told her I’d update the guide.

          That a) helped her think of the bigger picture beyond just copying the guide, b) gave me something to “fix” by updating the guide instead of doing the task, and c) made the guide better which paid off when my departure was at the same time as her maternity leave.

    3. NonProfit Nancy*

      Yeah, don’t be Hermione Granger on this one. The credit all goes to Harry and she does most of the work. Nobody likes a know-it-all :)

    4. OP*

      Ok I still think that the majority of time when I’ve been helping/training/troubleshooting that I haven’t taken control of the computer but I am willing to work on the times that I do. So today when I had to troubleshoot twice I made sure my hands were in my pockets or otherwise engaged. Progress.

  9. seejay*

    One of the positions I was hired into quite a few years ago was as a computer forensic data analyst with a side of database administration and programming working in the investigations department of a bank. It didn’t take very long for people in our department (who weren’t all computer people, they were fraud investigators) to realize that hey, I was the “computer expert” and started coming to me whenever they had a computer problem, which spanned from “how do I print” to “my computer doesn’t work” to “this font is the wrong size”. Literally every little computer issue that came up, I became tech support. Why? Because the bank IT/tech support line was annoying to call and wait on hold for and I was one to two pods over and could help quicker.

    Except then my day turned into 4 to 6 hours of tech support for the whole department on top of trying to do what I was actually *hired* for. I didn’t get trained in forensic analysis to be doing tech support and fixing Word/Excel problems, and I was falling behind on what I needed to do.

    So my coworker and I printed out the tech support phone number and taped it to our filing cabinet between us. Whenever someone came to our pod, we wouldn’t look up from our computers and we’d just point at it. We’d respond to emails with just the tech support phone number after that. People were *pissed*. We could easily answer in 30 seconds, but instead we were sending them a phone number and telling them to spend 20 to 30 minutes on the phone with tech support, but the problem was their 30 seconds added up with someone else’s 30 seconds to someone else’s and it was ruining our days, and *we weren’t hired to do tech support*.

    In short, you were hired to do X job. You might have to be rude about it, but if you don’t lay that line down, you will be doing Y job for everyone else at the expense of X and your sanity.

    1. OP*

      Yeah I also get a bit of the tech support thing. And all I’m basically doing is seeing if I can work it out or check google. I can see why you did what you did and how it would work. I’m not at a stage where I’m comfortable going to that level yet so I need to work on getting there.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        “Sorry, I’m not tech support and I can’t help you resolve that.”

        1. EddieSherbert*

          …I will literally tell someone when I Google something.

          “Your numbers on your keyboard aren’t working? Hmmm… I’m not sure. That’s not related to the software we provide you, but I just searched for that in Google and Google suggests hitting the NumLock key.”

          (And I do some legit tech support – like talking to customers)

          1. seejay*

            If I don’t like someone, I will literally send them the lmgtfy link. Only if I don’t like them though. People I like tend to take that really badly. XD

      2. seejay*

        Seriously, if you’re not hired as tech support, push back and *don’t be tech support*. I’ve been tech support for my mom for 20 years and while that’s a different sort of boundary/push back, I’m finally getting her to the point of getting her to look things up on “the google” and reading instructions instead of yelling about how she doesn’t know what to do (she actually managed to successfully install “the Microsoft Office” on the weekend, it was amazing, although it took her five minutes to find Excel). I know it sounds rude to just say “no” but for your sanity and your job, you *have* to do it.

        Prior to my bank position, I was hired as a forensic tech at a PI company and spent half my day doing tech support including virus cleaning because no one knew how to *not click on bad attachments*. The company actually had stopped calling in the IT contractor after they hired me because I could do “all the things he could do”. I went from normal hours to 14 hour days of IT support, virus squashing and my regular job of forensics… all because I’d answered a few small quick and easy tech support questions.

        I’m a software engineer now. We have an IT department. While 3/4 of the company is actually tech savvy and can figure out stuff if it breaks, no one comes to me for tech support because we have an IT department and that’s their job. If someone came to me because they couldn’t get Word to run or something else like that, I’d seriously just look at them like they have two heads and tell them to jump off a bridge*. No, I don’t get paid to do that. It’s not me refusing to be helpful or thinking I’m too good to do it… I just learned the hard way, I need to have solid healthy boundaries on what my job is.

        (* and to be truthful, this is also a really gross, tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, but it’s just to make my point.)

        1. OP*

          I’ve possibly mislead people with the amount of tech support I do. Or I’m still under estimating how much I do do. Thanks for sharing your history – it helps

          1. Wanna-Alp*

            They can google it themselves. They are just as capable of reading the search results as you are!

      3. Hermione*

        Ugh, I’ve been there. The thing is, your boss has now told you expressly to stop doing these sorts of tasks. These are your new rules to live by, and so you no longer have to try to build up the fortitude to say no on your own behalf. Use Alison’s language ‘Oh, sorry, but Fergus has asked me to focus on (priorities) and not to (troubleshoot your computer/printer/do your tasks for you). Here’s the number for IT, though, if you need it!’ and don’t get lured in by their cries of ‘Oh, but you helped me last week and it’s giving me the same error message!’ because then you’re breaking your new rules and could get in hot water with Fergus for your troubles.

        If you won the lottery tomorrow, they would figure it out. They can do so even if you’re down the hall doing your own work, I promise.

        1. Purple Jello*

          This! Read this comment to yourself every morning before starting work. Put it as a recurring reminder on your calendar.

    2. Cassandra*

      Off-topic: I’d love more detail on that job and how you got there! Would Alison interview you?

      1. seejay*

        The funny thing is, people hear “forensic” and think about the tv shows and how interesting and exciting it must be. It’s actually not, outside of some of the juicy stories I could tell from some of the investigations I’ve been involved in. Criminal procedurals on tv take out all the boring stuff, which is about 90% of the job (literally) and the 10% they keep, they add flashy stuff that doesn’t exist to make it look exciting. Was it *really* that exciting to spend 10 hours going through over 20k emails to figure out who leaked a “private” email out to someone that they shouldn’t have, leading to some embarrassment and probably some sort of punishment, except I couldn’t actually give them a smoking gun of who did it because there wasn’t proof of who did it even after all my investigations? And even after all that, I wasn’t privy to any disciplinary actions anyway, I was just told enough details about why I was going through the emails and what to look for and handed over my results when I was done and that was it. Also, within the bank and PI company, it was financial fraud and intellectual property that I was mostly involved in, with the very occasional employee behavioural problem that we had to deal with, so it winds up not being as exciting as criminal stuff (in my opinion anyway). I wound up getting kind of disillusioned with it in the long-run. There were some cases and investigations that were interesting and I felt were impactful, but I needed to get out of the private sector.

        That being said, I personally find the field interesting and would go back into it if I can get my foot back in the door (I’m not in it right now due to a range of circumstances that led to me having to change career directions about 8 years ago). I’m hoping that in the next few years I’ll be able to redirect back into forensics and security, but I don’t think it’s exciting to the layperson as most people think it is! (except the juicy stories… those *can* be fun… I just don’t have a lot of them since financial fraud and IP doesn’t really lend itself to juicy stories!)

  10. Rusty Shackelford*

    Is there a reason Fergus isn’t going to the LW’s coworkers and saying “I need you to start handling this on your own and stop asking Jane for help?”

    1. OP*

      I think he has been doing some of this behind the scenes as I’ve had the occasional “I know we need to work this out ourselves…”

  11. OP*

    Thanks so much for your response.

    I’ve never thought about a not to do list. It makes sense. It will also help in other ways. Eg recently I was deliberately kept out of a project to show it could be done without me. It was a mess so my boss got me involved behind the scenes. In order to do the job properly I needed to visibly ask questions etc. So I simultaneously did the right and wrong thing. If I had of had a clear list, approved by the boss, of what to do and what not to do I could have avoided crossing the line and becoming a potential scapegoat for someone else’s mess.

    This may seem a little overkill but I think I’ll run a list of prepared responses past my boss. I’ve not been able to read the political situation at all and want to avoid accidentally inflaming it. I’m slowly getting better at getting people to check the doccos first or to go vendor. And people are starting to go I’ve checked the manual/tried working it out myself so that’s an improvement. Don’t know if that’s because they’re becoming more familiar with the software or if my comments about needing to make sure the manuals are sufficient because I’m going to win lotto (I know I’m not but it’s nicer than hit by a bus) have had an impact.

    There’s a couple of things with the budget and not telling people. First up I haven’t been sure how long I’ll be here. There’s been a couple of extensions already but they’re sort of last minute things due to politics. Also if I had of been open about the fact I might only be here a short time, it would have exacerbated the political complications I’ve already caused.

    I know that this is a big deal, it’s hurting my ability in my role and my relationship with my boss. Trying to address this is tearing me up inside. I always believed that if you spot an issue/solution you should raise it. And if you’re in a position to do something about it you should. That’s hurting me now. But sitting on it, particularly when I hear people going about it the wrong way, is really hard. Think of it as combining nails on a chalk board with an itch that you can’t scratch. I’m working on some strategies to deal with this. I’m messaging my boss going issue/solution not planning on doing anything just letting you know so someone knows and I can try to put it out of my head. I’m using headphones as much as possible – if I don’t hear it it can’t aggravate me. I’m also trying to avoid the messaging platforms for the same reason.

    Your last paragraph really hits at a weakness of mine. My low self esteem tells me that my only worth to people is how helpful I am to them. Logically I know that isn’t true and it is something I’m working on. I’m going to have to spend more time on working out how to replace what I get out of being helpful with more productive things.

    I hope haven’t come off as resistant/trying to justify myself. If I have please let me know as it means I need to delve further into the causes of it.

    1. Allypopx*

      Running a list past your boss doesn’t seem like overkill at all. He’s asked you to work on something and you’re showing initiative and asking for his feedback I think that’s perfectly reasonable.

      And you don’t sound resistant! You sound very self aware and like you’re just having a hard time with this situation. I hope the advice here helps you navigate things.

      To your last point: You are very articulate and come off just in your letter and response as smart and competent. I’m sure your work will speak for itself without you needing to be overly helpful.

    2. Isben Takes Tea*

      OP, this situation is not your fault–you are involved, but clearly, if keeping one person off of a project leads that project to turn into such a mess, there’s a problem on the organizational level. It’s not normal for everyone to be so unable to figure things out on their own that they can’t do their jobs if one historically helpful person is removed from the equation, and again, that level of behavioral training isn’t maintained by just one person (you).

      It sounds like there are several factors at play here, and that it’s a messy environment all around. Don’t take the feedback to harshly, as if your behavior is the key problem with the transition. In the meantime, the best tactic I’ve used is to listen for “Do you have a minute?” and practice saying, regardless of whether I’m free or not, “Sorry, not right now.” If it’s an emergency, I can point them to my boss–“Try checking with Boss.”

    3. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Stop messaging your boss to get the itch scratched; he’s telling you in as many ways as he can that you’re not to involve yourself in these tasks anymore.

      The suggestion to have a not-to-do list is good. Also, have some sample scripts:

      “You know, that area really isn’t my responsibility anymore, but I’d suggest checking the manuals and working from there.”

      “Fergus has told me that this isn’t something I can get involved with moving forward, so I’d suggest working from the manual and letting him know if you need something else.”

      “Sorry, I can’t be your go-to on this anymore. Have you checked out the manuals?”

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Also, I think you need to be open about the fact that you’re not a long-term member of that team and they need to get along without you.

      2. OP*

        I’m finding myself reacting to a couple of points you’ve made and I’m not sure if it’s because you’ve hit sore spots or if the advice doesn’t quite match my situation. So let me know if I’ve not understood this correctly.

        I don’t think I’m messaging my boss to scratch an itch. I’m trying to keep it contained to things that I think someone above me should be aware of. These are the sort of things that potentially could come back as “if you knew there was an issue…”. Actually yes there is a little bit of an itch scratch but at the moment it’s the only way I can move on from whatever I’ve discovered without fixing it.

        I don’t picture myself as part of the long term team. I know that I could be cut at anytime. I’ve been deliberately segregated from sections of the business etc. What I do know is that while I’m here I’m trying to be as thorough and conscientious as I can. I just need to redefine what those terms mean in this role.

        1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          With respect, as regards the messaging the boss to scratch an itch, I’m going directly off your own words.

          And again with respect, I think you’re defining “thorough and conscientious” right now in terms of what you need and want from the situation – to be helpful, available, valued, and to personally ensure that things go smoothly. Reframing it to mean what your employer wants and needs from you in the situation will serve you much better, and that’s all I’m saying.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            That’s a really good point, applicable not just to OP but to everyone. At your job and in your personal life, what is considered “thorough and conscientious” will vary from person to person and from manager to manager. If you want to be truly thoughtful and helpful to a friend, you think about how to be conscientious in a way that they would think was conscientious. If you want to keep your boss happy, you need to figure out what your boss thinks being thorough and thoughtful means and do that, not what *you* think should be done.

          2. OP*

            Ok sorry I wasn’t more clear in my response. It’s not that wording scratch an itch. It was more the thought that I was doing it just to scratch an itch.

            Yes I know that I need to redefine those words in terms of this role.

        2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

          Also, I would not worry about “if you knew there was an issue….”. That sounds a bit like a justification for jumping in, but even if so, you’ve got an ironclad response: “I was directed to stop jumping into these situations by Fergus.”

        3. Jennifer*

          I can see both sides of the “scratch an itch” piece (i.e., that it’s a continuing to keep your helping hand in things; that it’s a way to wean yourself off helping so much).

          Perhaps you could discuss your intentions with your boss. You could mention it at the same time you run past the list of prepared responses with him. “In addition to these responses, and as a part of my continued efforts to stop helping so much, I’ve started emailing you when I hear projects are going sideways and/or something is being missed. My intention is that you would know of the situation and can follow up as you see fit, without me stepping in to help the individuals myself. Does this seem like a reasonable approach to you?”

    4. animaniactoo*

      FWIW, several years ago, I was training to take over from my dad in a job that he was leaving to go do something else.

      One day, I asked him to show me how to do something, and he waved me off and told me it would be easier to do it himself. I said “Yes, but if you don’t show ME, I’ll never know”. He got up, I sat back down and he walked me through it and never did that to me again.

      So, if you can reframe this in your head – yes, the customer needs it NOW, but how often is the customer needs it NOW greater than the customer needs to have the person who needs help doing it to have learned how to do it? So that person can assist them in future? It’s a swing shift from not helping to helping in a different way.

      I suspect, btw, that you are a perfectionist – ring true? If so, I would like to reinforce to you what I reinforce to my child with perfectionist tendencies: People will regularly screw up when they are learning how to do something. Screwing it up is how they learn not to do it that way. Because they can see the active cause-and-effect in a way that doesn’t happen any other way, it doesn’t become as embedded in the logic process, etc. as effectively any other way. So it is important to give yourself and others the opportunity to screw up – and learn how not to by doing it. In many ways – this is the path you are on right now. You’re seeing the effects of being too helpful. You’re learning how not to do it in response to it, developing strategies, etc. that will work better for you in the longterm. If you can take this in, it may help lessen the frustration at seeing/hearing things done wrong and help you give your co-workers the same space to become competent at their tasks by doing them wrong (initially).

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Also, the customer might need it now, but that doesn’t mean they need it done now by you.

      2. Bwmn*

        I would also add to this that a lot of times to do something adequately (or even well), perfect isn’t really all that important. Ok can be just fine, especially if it helps someone become great.

        I had a job that had a lot of external facing meetings with partners and donors. When I first started, anyone who’d come with me would obviously present a more well rounded discussion about the organization because they’d been there longer. And the first few times I met on my own – I promise you, there’s no way those meetings were perfect. But I also didn’t ruin any relationships and having all of those early “ok” meetings eventually got me to the point where I was great.

      3. OP*

        You’ve got me. I have strong perfectionistic tendencies. A frequent comment from my boss is “Stop trying to get a perfect solution”. When people make certain mistakes I do think I wouldn’t have made them. But I also believe that some of the issues are because the design wasn’t intuitive or the manuals weren’t clear or missed it entirely. And yes mistakes are great learning opportunities. There is also knowledge that can learnt from others mistakes without having to make the mistake your self. Just need to find that line. We’ve also provided an environment where they can experiment/learn/make mistakes without any live consequences.

        1. NW Mossy*

          I’m coaching one of my own employees on a related issue, where she wants to take ownership of mistakes made by others and be the one to fix it all. It’s incredibly frustrating to her that they “can’t get it right” and she spends a lot of mental energy on analyzing why, and if they did XYZ this wouldn’t happen, and so on.

          I’ve had to tell her (in pretty much these words, but with a smile in my voice) “Sometimes, you just have to let them be wrong.” If it’s impeding her work, she should push it back for a fix. If it doesn’t, she needs to limit her input to “Just wanted you to be aware of X” and then drop it. You can’t save people from themselves, and it’s an incredible time suck to try. Let them make their own mistakes and be held accountable by their bosses, just like your boss is holding you accountable for an area where you can be more effective.

        2. animaniactoo*

          A few pieces of food for thought:

          1) No, you wouldn’t have made *that* mistake. But you might have made a different one – one that they wouldn’t have made, because they picked up on something else faster than you might have.

          2) It’s okay for them to struggle with manuals that aren’t clear. Figuring out that the manual really isn’t clear and how to tell that more rapidly is a part of the learning process. As well as figuring out how to poke around more and see if they can figure it out from other input/thought processes.

          3) There are many many people in the world who simply won’t believe the evidence of someone else’s mistake and need to do it themselves to prove it wrong. In many ways, this is a GOOD thing. It helps us challenge “established” knowledge and figure out if it really is that way or if there’s something that has been handed down because it went wrong in one situation, without a lot of examination about what other approaches might work apart from the one solution proven to work – maybe another would work better. Maybe something was hidden or glitchy that day.

          All that said, yes, sometimes, it is something that needs help to address. That it’s not really good for somebody to struggle with something for 2 hours and get it into their heads how hard something is when it’s really not. Right now, because your boss is calling you out on it, I would err hard on the side of the line that is not “helping” them, and work to recalibrate towards the middle from the other side. In part so you can see how often they DO manage to work it out themselves if pushed to do so and left alone.

          In the meantime, grab your helping tendencies, and see what you can do about creating “cheatsheets” for places where you think the documentation isn’t clear. (Says the woman whose role it has become to figure out new software/processes for our department and give my co-workers the d/l on the pieces they actually need to know to do their jobs.)

          1. animaniactoo*

            Another food for thought:

            “I also believe that some of the issues are because the design wasn’t intuitive or the manuals weren’t clear”

            Letting people struggle will highlight those portions where this is true and help push for changes for them, better internal documentation around those, etc.

            1. Bwmn*

              This is really good. I used to work at an office that was very difficult to find – just using Google Maps or giving a Taxi/Uber Driver an address would not work. Creating directions for people to explain where our office was a process that took some trial and error.

              There was an easy to find landmark a few minutes walk away from the office – and while I could always meet someone who was very lost or nervous about being lost there – across my career it would have eaten up so much time waiting for people there just to walk them back. Not to mention, the few times it needed to happen, it was often an awkward moment when people felt unable to find a meeting location on their own.

        3. OperaArt*

          I’m a reformed perfectionist. The number one thing that helped me break out of that mindset was to start taking improv (improvisation) classes. Still at it 7 years later, and even going some coaching. People figure out pretty quickly that controlling or perfectionist behavior leads to really bad improv scenes. Improv skills translate directly to the work environment: teamwork, embracing the unexpected, brainstorming, the power of a diverse group.

    5. Silver Radicand*

      Would it be possible to direct folks who request help from you to Fergus? If she is serious about this, then Fergus might be able to act as a gatekeeper for you and that would let her know if there were any serious fires. (Also, I bet the askers would think twice before asking Fergus for you to help them) Depends on the culture of course, but might be very useful. I have done this before when one of my employees was coming up on a deadline and couldn’t be distracted.

      Also, you don’t sound resistant! You are helping the deeper problem of your co-workers not being sufficiently experienced in their job areas.

      1. OP*

        Haha. Some of the things that have come my way are because Fergus has been pushing back on them himself. And I’ve been a bit too much of a sap to push back myself. And realistically there’s manuals, a couple of basic videos, some third party support so I should feel better about pushing back. I think he has been doing some behind the scenes work to make it easier for me.

    6. JB (not in Houston)*

      I don’t know if this will be helpful to you at all, but you might see if you can get your hands on a copy of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. It’s talks somewhat about people who get their self worth from being seen as X quality, though that’s not the entire focus of the book. It may or may not relate to you, but I found it quite interesting.

    7. Solidus Pilcrow*

      “Eg recently I was deliberately kept out of a project to show it could be done without me. It was a mess so my boss got me involved behind the scenes. In order to do the job properly I needed to visibly ask questions etc. So I simultaneously did the right and wrong thing. “

      I’m assuming it was your boss who left you off the project in the first place. If so, holy mixed messages, Batman! For both you and the team. Are you in or are you out? It seems that the boss doesn’t really know either.

      I think the priority here is to get real clear what exactly you are (and aren’t) supposed to do and who takes up which tasks and get the boss to communicate that *consistently* to the team. I think the re-assignment of tasks really has to come from the boss.

      Can you set aside some time dedicated to transition training? I’ve found that if something is explicitly labeled as training, people tend to take it more seriously to learn than they do with calling someone over with a “hey, can you help me with the TPS report?” request. If Wakeen is taking over the weekly TPS report, give him an hour every week for 3 weeks to learn it (or whatever makes sense). Hopefully it will become easier for you to say, “Sorry, I can’t do the weekly TPS report. Wakeen’s been trained to take over that task.”

      1. OP*

        I’m communicating the stuff as I’ve experienced it. It’s quite possible that my boss had been clear on the expectations but I’ve misunderstood/mixed them up due to stress/emotions. Given that my boss is usually pretty clear and direct I think this may have been the case.

    8. Not So NewReader*

      ” I always believed that if you spot an issue/solution you should raise it. And if you’re in a position to do something about it you should.”

      Change your mind, change your life. Check this out: Business does not want employees to work this way. Do not fix things that you have not been asked directly to fix. The statement above is NOT true.

      Now before I get myself in deep trouble here let me explain it from a different angle.
      You hire a gardener to help with your garden. The gardener comes in your house because she got a fleck of dirt in her eye and she needs to wash her eye in a clean area. While she is inside your house she notices and takes it upon herself to: let your dog/cat out, vacuum the living room, dust your dining room, hand write out your phone messages and alphabetize your spices.

      You are paying her to garden. What you really needed help with was: cutting the broken lilac limb, dividing the dahlias and resetting a small bed by the driveway. However, being that you are a good person, you do realize that she DID do work for you, so you pay her for work you did NOT want. You understand that she saw these things needed to be done so she just did them up for you. But you are in a pickle because she is not doing the work you absolutely need her to do. Your quandary is helping her to understand that while this inside work did need to be done, you did not want HER doing it and you did not want to pay for that work right now.

      Early on, I had to tell myself that if I did not follow the boss’ priorities, then at some point I could be described as “not manageable”. If I could not learn to accept directives as stated then I could not be an employee to anyone. Keep telling yourself that gardeners do not alphabetize the spices.

      1. OP*

        That’s a very clear analogy.

        It’s difficult moving from a role where my directions were literally find and solve problems to one where I have to keep my focus on a particular area. Will have to try to remember gardeners vs spice racks.

  12. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

    “My low self esteem tells me that my only worth to people is how helpful I am to them.”

    Reframe: you are not being helpful to them like this. By allowing them to walk over you instead of operate independently, you’re actually undermining them and yourself.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      I’d also add that allowing the coworkers to sometimes make mistakes is also the best way for them to learn. Jumping in to help them before they can do anything “wrong” is not helpful to anyone.

      Also, their way may simply be different than how the OP would do it, and not actually wrong. It may even turn out to be better.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        And since this sounds like a software system, at least speaking for myself, I’ve got to just flail around and screw up a bit before I get a new system and how it works.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      That serves to perpetuate a falsehood and keeps you locked in your problem, OP.

      Sometimes issues have more than one part.
      Here because of immediacy, you must figure out how to stop helping everyone in sight.

      But the second part is longer term and that is figuring out where else you can get your sense of self-worth. I’d offer this thought. Fake it until you make it and affirmations. Look in the mirror every morning and say, “I value/respect ME”, even if you are not really “feeling” it. Do it every morning. Put a Post-It Note reminder on your mirror. And keep looking around at things that remind you that you are a human being and therefore have value.

      It’s one of life’s cruel ironies really. Often times we have to let go of the very thing that we cling to in order to find the parts of ourselves that we are looking for. It’s not just you, I hope you know that. Most of us have a variation of this story, we hold on to something that undermines us because we think it gives us X. And we have to let go of this thing in order to actually get X. When we finally do let go, we are surprised to see doors around us FLY open.

  13. this*

    All of this advice is especially important if you are still in the same office but a different role. You have to be able to push back on continuing to do/help with the old role.

  14. Undine*

    Do you have friends you could try role-playing with? Especially ones who are able to be sneaky — “oh, this will just take a second, I realize you’re busy, maybe I should do it myself but then it will take all week”. Just like interviewing, it’s easier to say “no” in the moment if you practice. Even better if it’s about something else real, and you forget and get suckered in.

  15. Lily in NYC*

    I got the same feedback at my very first review at my very first job and I didn’t take it to heart because my boss was a mean person so I thought she was just being her usual obstinate self. It took me some years to mature and realize what she meant (and she was spot on with her assessment). Question for Alison and the gang – would it be a bad idea to use this as an example when asked for a weakness in an interview? I’m thinking it might not be great.

    1. Bwmn*

      I think that most weaknesses are best used when you can show how you’ve corrected. Like, I used to be overly helpful to the point of doing things for people but as I’ve moved through management I’ve learned a lot about how to guide colleagues through challenges without taking over.

      Personally, my favorite criticism I’ve ever had was when I was working abroad, and my boss (from that country) said my greatest weakness was that I was “too American”. As awkward as that one is, I was once in an interview where I thought it might work (the interviewees were familiar with a number of the challenges/realities of working in that country) and ultimately it did work well. But it’s also definitely not a weakness I’d be confident would work in every interview.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        Ha, I can just see myself being like: I really learned from the feedback and now I’m no longer helpful at all!

        1. Bwmn*

          Well in that case……

          Yeah, as I showed below – I found a way to make “too American” into a pretty solid interview weakness, but I sometimes change that description to learning how to be more concise, especially with non-native English speakers.

      2. EddieSherbert*

        Just curious – what did they mean by “too American”? What did you ave to work on to… improve that? Fix that? Haha.

        It sounds odd. Super curious though!

        1. Bwmn*

          In this context, “too American” basically translated that I would try to soften my answers or be too nice. While that was great for my external pieces of the job (and why I was hired), internally they wanted me to be more direct. If an email could be three bullet points that were all very short sentence fragments, or even just No/Yes/Done by tomorrow, that was preferred.

          Ultimately it’s not a ridiculous weakness. particularly with a non-English speak office and telling a future manager “I learned how to be more concise about what a situation was and what I needed” – that all works well in an interview. But rather or not I’d say “too American” again in an interview about what my greatest weakness is…….I’d still be cautious!

          1. EddieSherbert*

            Ah, that makes sense (and can totally be worded differently than “too American” if you wanted to use it!).

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think people would want a more recent example. And they would like to see that it did not take you a while to correct it, you corrected it ASAP. Of course, leave out the negatives about the boss. All these things may alter the story too much and you might decide to scrap it in favor of something easier to explain.

      I don’t know if something like this would work: The boss said I was too helpful. I thought about it and I realized I was spending x time per day helping people with things unrelated to my job. I took steps A, B and C to remedy this matter and to make my work relevant to what the boss actually wanted. If this is too far removed from reality then I would not use it.

  16. Valor*

    This was one of the first major feedback points I ever got on a job. My supervisor said to me, “You’re not helping, you’re enabling.” That frame really helped me say no, because what seemed on the surface to be helpfulness was actually hurting their ability to improve their job performance.

  17. Anon for this post*

    When I was an admin asst, I had this same feedback from a GrandBoss – I was helping out another office too much (they came to me, because their own admin was not completing things in a timely manner). It was tough to not be able to help people who would say, “But you know how Jane is, she won’t ever put in this request, I’ll never get my expenses done/office supplies ordered/printer fixed.” I wanted desperately to help them, and was flat out told not to. So I had to push back, and it was hard. “I’m so sorry, I’m not allowed to do your expenses per $GrandBoss, please ask Jane to take care of them.” I think it was a wake up call for that office when they were no longer able to ask me for assistance, and it gave the boss there a better metric for Jane’s work output. Not everything was getting done, but it wasn’t my fault, it was Jane’s.
    I am no longer an admin, I’ve moved up in the food chain. Jane is still an admin doing people’s expenses, and they still complain about her to me.
    Like other commenters have said, I put a lot of my self worth into being liked. Think about it like this though, I needed my GrandBoss to like me more than I needed the staff at that office to like me. The GrandBoss is the one who could directly affect my career.
    I found this article helpful as well

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      This is a good point. It may be that the boss actually kind of wants the people who come to OP begging for help to struggle a bit to assess their performance and capability, and OP is interfering with that.

    2. AliceBD*

      Yes! At my previous position at this company, I was trained to check the queue before putting something in for the creative team, and to control their workload on our end. A few months after I started, there was a meeting: “We’ve heard something about how not all of the things for creative are in the system. We want you to put them all in there, and have firm due dates. We want an additional resource, but if the queue looks manageable or you don’t complain about stuff missing due dates, we can’t get one.” We put in the tons of backlog, and we quickly showed that the team could not get everything done by the deadlines we had. That gave the rationale for additional help, and a freelancer was hired on. It’s 3.5 years after that meeting, and the freelancer is basically a permanent staff member now.*

      *Not in a “this company is messing up contractor/employee” way. Just that she has worked for my department that entire time, and comes in about once a week for meetings and to transfer large files (she’s otherwise home with her kids, so she likes an excuse to come in), so she’s almost like a coworker.

  18. ArtsNerd*

    Be kinder to yourself! This isn’t you being terrible because you are helping people. The comments about undermining are true, but look at it this way: you are learning to set boundaries AND you have a manager who has your back. What a great opportunity to learn how to say “no” and stick to it. Fear of being rude gets a lot of people in much worse situations than impoliteness.

    Your self awareness is great. Just be sure you’re giving the “awesome” parts you see in yourself equal if or more weight than the “human and fallible” parts.

    I may be projecting my own past into this, but I’m reading some pretty intense anxieties about letting go of these habits. Maybe a coach or counselor can help guide you? Either way, it’s a process. It takes time.

    1. OP*

      Ha! This resonates.

      I think your point about fear of being rude vs impoliteness is spot on. Not sure on how I’ll get over it at the moment. Probably need to work out a way to reframe it.

      I don’t think I’m as aware of my good points because they’re just part who I am. I need to follow Alison’s advice and work out what me/how I do my job different from someone else. Not so good points are much easier to spot (especially when you’re run down) so they get more focus. I’ve been a bit hit and miss when trying to reframe these/give myself permission. Another thing to add to the personal to do list.

      These are lifetime behaviours that have helped me navigate family, school and work. They’ve become part of my sense of identity. So yeah, there’s definitely anxiety in trying to change a core part of myself.

      1. NW Mossy*

        One thing to bear in mind that redirecting someone is not rude – it’s actually quite helpful. You’re offering the person inquiring two important things – a place to begin, and the knowledge that the place is a good place to start for resolving their question.

        I get a ton of random inquiries because I’ve been on several different teams in my organization and know a lot about how things work and who’s responsible for what. I consider redirection a valuable service because I’m offering the person asking the chance to start building a relationship with someone who’s really an expert in that area, and robust networks help everyone in the organization be more effective over time. Connectors/bridge-builders are invaluable, so efforts you make in the direction will be received much better than you think!

        1. Kira*

          Oh, I love how you’re framing it as redirecting, connecting, and building bridges! My new job requires me to be less hands on than I’m accustomed to when solving client’s issues. I’m still working on my comfort level with telling them “You should look it up over on that website” instead of researching it, solving their problem, and presenting a solution with a bow on too.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Most of us are either unaware of our good points or take our good points for granted. (I am doing what I am supposed to do.)

        Lifetime behaviors: Nothing like a job to get a person to start thinking about their habits and changing their habits. Jobs do mold us and shape us. It’s okay to let our jobs teach us things in good ways. I think that our jobs should grow us personally in some manner.

        I heard some artists/crafters talking one day. They concluded that if they did not act like their work was of value, no one else would either. Your own work stands on its own as being of value and it is okay to keep your chin up and know that you can give value to the company just on your own.

  19. Dorothy Mantooth*

    Add to the list of misread headings… “how can I stop being so hateful to coworkers?”
    I think there are times we all need that one too!

  20. C in the Hood*

    OP, back in the day, I used to be you. I didn’t know I had a problem until a new coworker pointed it out to me. I, too, love helping people. But I realized the old adage “teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
    I think the fact that you have documented your processes in manuals is fantastic. I did the same, and when my coworkers came to me with a question, my standard response was “what does the process say?” This trained them to actually look and to learn the process for themselves.
    In the long run, this was truly helping them; our office ended up closing and many of those coworkers relocated to a new office, bringing those processes and their newfound knowledge with them.
    The moral of the story is: the best way you can help your co-workers is to empower them.

    1. TootsNYC*

      You can also say, “Oh, was the manual not helpful?” And wait for the answer.

      If they haven’t even looked, you can say, “Please try to use it. I need to know how well it works. Give it a really good try before you come back. Don’t just give up quick–that won’t help me find out what might need tweaking.”

      If they have looked, you can say, “Let’s get out the manual= and walk through it together. I need to see how it’s working.”

  21. amanda2*

    You’re really lucky that you have a boss that’s supporting you to work on this. I work as part of a 2-person team within a larger 10 person team. My partner and I oversee and service 6 locations. My partner has a serious problem with being way too helpful. We talk about it often and I have given her feedback about the issue and how it impacts our collective performance. Unfortunately, I am not her supervisor (although my position is above hers, we both report to the same boss) so she doesn’t really have to take any of my feedback. It gets really frustrating to me to continually have to try and nicely remind her of the boundaries of what she should be working on (i.e. “Remember, boss said that if someone asks you for XYZ, then you should only do X and tell them you cannot do Y or Z for them.”) and I’m certain she is starting to feel resentful of me repeatedly giving her feedback on this issue. When Alison pointed out that your helpfulness may actually be making you less good at your job, I realized that is exactly the issue my co-worker has. She is good at her job, but this over-helpfulness is stretching her so thin, she isn’t able to complete tasks in a timely manner, she ends up being forgetful and scattered, and just can’t keep track of all of the obligations she has made. By trying to be so helpful, she is actually being less helpful to most of our clients. The next time she and I talk about this, I am going to try and frame the issue this way. Thank you!

    1. Sue Wilson*

      Honestly, if you’re not her manager, I wouldn’t talk to her about her performance at all, except in the direct ways it’s affecting you.

  22. cleo*

    “you probably need to reframe your ideas about “helpfulness” and when it’s good and when it’s not so good”
    A+ advice. I got similar advice when I was younger and following it was very helpful.

    When I started teaching college level art and design, I was really uncomfortable giving students any constructive criticism because it didn’t seem “nice” and being nice was a huge part of my self image and socialization (I’m a white Midwestern woman and we’re socialized to be be NICE). One of my mentors told me that I needed to redefine nice for myself and I did. I realized that it wasn’t actually that nice to let students think their work was better than it actually was (at least in my professional opinion) and I was able to come up with ways to give students negative feedback while still being warm and respectful. By the time I left teaching (after 16 years), my colleagues recognized me as someone who was really good at having tough conversations with students and students sought me out for mentoring.

    OP – you may find it useful to redefine being helpful. There may be times it’s most helpful not to do something for someone.

    Good luck!

    1. OP*

      Ok I’m not being flippant here but as I was reading your comment it tickled my funny bone. If you’ve ever read Good Omens one main characters mentioned that nice has changed meaning over time. It used to mean something like precise.

      On a serious note thanks for providing your story. Listening to other people’s stories over time helps to readjust personal expectations/mindsets.

      1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

        From Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (written in sometime between 1798 and 1803, and published in 1818), a dialogue between Catherine Morland, Henry Tilney, and his sister, Eleanor, about “nice”:

        “But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

        “The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

        “Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

        “I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

        “Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! — It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

        “While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.”

        Snarky!Henry is the best Henry.

  23. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    I’m just going to put this out there:

    People will still like you even when you say no to them.
    Real people will understand that it is a matter of respect, both for yourself and for them.
    Those who don’t? Are not real people. They are black holes of all-about-me time suckage.
    So, THEY might not like you when you say no.
    And who gives a damn if they don’t like you?

  24. Persephone Mulberry*

    Personally, if working remotely is a viable option for the JOB, I would consider pushing back on your boss’s suggestion that “you need to work through it, not avoid it.” This is work, not exposure therapy. Everyone around you needs to retrain themselves not to turn to you first, as well as you working on not jumping in. Being less accessible serves both of these goals.

    Aside from that, on the personal mindset side of things, I totally get you. I LOVED being The Person With All The Answers. But over time, I started to get burned out on being pulled in so many directions, and being good at a lot of things meant it was harder to be recognized as Really Good at the things I wanted to do, long term.

    Since it sounds like your time in this division/department/whatever is limited, although the exact transition date isn’t known, I would start thinking now about the kind of reputation you want to build with your colleagues in the new area, and what specific actions and behaviors will best support that. Best of luck!

    1. OP*

      My boss has known me at two companies and knows that this behaviour has been consistent over a decade. He also knows that I have to get this under control for my current and future roles. As much as it would be so much easier for me to push back if I’m working remotely, long term it’s better for me to deal with it on the ground. Sucks, is hard but hopefully provides greater growth.

      Will have to think about how to start off on the right foot in a new future role.

  25. Chickaletta*

    I’m a little like this. I find it so, so much easier to just do things myself, or do something because someone else has asked me to. I’ve been bad at delegating and telling people “no” because, to me, it feels like I’m dumping work on other people or letting them down. Recently, I’ve had some success handing off work to other people and watching them grow stronger and stronger in those areas – the more they take on the task themselves, the better they get, and that makes me feel good. I’m in a place now where I can be a mentor, and watching people grow is rewarding, so maybe that’s one way to look at things.

  26. SebbyGrrl*

    Knock Knock has some great sarcastic office supplies and definitely a Not to Do List.
    Also check out Button Down and See Jane Work.

    1. animaniactoo*

      I was a subversive aunt and got my teenage niece their “WTF” notes for the holidays this year.

  27. TootsNYC*

    Be my mom.

    My mom was the wisest woman on earth. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but…)

    She would say to us, when we were kids, “If I weren’t here, what would your next step be?” Now, she was the mom, so she could be this “teacher-y,” but you might promise you will always always start with a question.

    “Where have you looked so far?” or “What have you done so far?” And -wait for the answer.- The idea is that you don’t want to duplicate what they’ve already done. The implication is that they -should- have done something before coming to you.

    Also, start thinking like a teacher–I do this. I say, “OK, let’s write this down so you don’t have to ask me next time, and you can move at your own speed.” The idea is that I’m empowering them and untethering them from me.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Was going to say just this. “Well, what did the manual say to do?” “Where did you start looking for a solution?”

      A little Socratic dialogue is both edifying and discouraging.

    2. Lison*

      Oh I love this. I have a coworker who when I ask them to find something just sits there and expects me to tell them where to find it until either I do (dude if I knew where to find it I’d have it) or one of the other people in the office overhears and just finds it. We all need to just make them do their job and your question is the perfect way to start that.

    3. Kira*

      A workplace version might be “Will you be able to handle this while I’m on vacation” or, when discussing how they need to cross train in someone else’s skills, “Yes, Jane knows the answer but it’s your responsibility to handle it when Jane’s out of the office. And of course, Jane’s allowed to take a vacation!”

  28. the_scientist*

    I see a lot of myself in this letter- perfectionism, some anxiety, I obtain personal satisfaction and fulfillment by being viewed as helpful, smart and knowledgeable by others. I think in addition to a “not to do” list, it would be helpful to think about the skills you *aren’t* developing because you’re spending time helping others out. Especially since it sounds like your role is going to change soon, this is a great time to think long-term about your career. Are there some things that you want to get really good at? Maybe it’s strategic decision-making, writing grant proposals or business cases, managing, project management, a particular technical skill, or a new programming language. You can’t be truly focused on these “stretch goals” when you’re spending a lot of your time helping others. This re-framing might also be helpful, internally: you’re not “no longer helping”, you are “focusing on key projects”.

    1. OP*

      Thank you for framing it like this. There’s skills I want to gain but haven’t had time (either no time at work or no energy at home). And some of these skills (like learning programming) are ones my boss wants me to learn.

      I guess I’m not sure on the etiquette of learning new skills on the job that aren’t directly relating to your role when you’re a contractor. And with the potential change in my management I’m not sure who to ask. Will cross that bridge when it comes up.

  29. RR*

    Hello OP! I’ve had to coach members of my team about this on a number of occasions. In addition to the considerations other commentators have provided, you might also consider asking yourself: Helpful to whom? Is it helpful to you if you are not getting to your main responsibilities? Is it helpful to your organization if your “help” is masking gaps and weaknesses that need to be addressed? Keep in mind that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should be the one to do it.

    1. OP*

      Thanks for responding. I do (sort of) get that it’s not helpful to me, my boss or others. I put the sort of in there because I suspect if I truly got it it wouldn’t be this big issue.

      I think your last sentence may be key here. I’ve always been annoyed by people who could and should do something not doing it. I made a resolution to myself that I wouldn’t be that person. I’ve just taken it too far because I’m doing it when I shouldn’t be. Arghhh is a tough but necessary one to change.

      1. Kira*

        That last part is insightful. It sounds like in the past you were annoyed when someone could help but declined, and now you want to make sure you’re not that kind of person.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Once you draw your own lines you will find yourself less annoyed at people who do not extensively help others. And your perspective will change in that you will see that when the chips are down more often than not these same folks DO help others. They are selective about when they help, that is all.

  30. Cruciatus*

    My coworker is too helpful. And I truly don’t think he’s doing it to be a jerk or anything, but I often want to club him. My boss has spoken to him about it before. He can’t tell faculty no, which is a huge problem because if we give an inch they take a mile and it gets everyone irritated (both faculty and staff). I often have to be the bad guy and hear “but X did it for me before…” Yeah, well, my boss said not to do this for anyone… For me personally it’s often with stupid, petty things, but like he’ll always do the mail even though I also like to get up away from my desk once in a while to do the mail. People are supposed to ask me about room availability on campus and as they are asking me he will be looking up the rooms in the system and saying yes/no to the availability. There’s no reason for him to do it unless I’m not here and the person is literally at my desk talking to me not expecting an answer in 5 seconds. It’s small things, but he takes them away from me and it drives me crazy. Not to mention it has to be distracting for him. There are more examples that I’m just not thinking of at the moment, but those are the most recent. I’m often in BEC mode because of it. The OP’s problems sound a little different as people are directly asking them for help, but they will cope! Sometimes having to figure things out on their own is the best way so don’t feel bad when you say “Sorry, can’t!”

    1. SimonTheGreyWarden*

      That sounds so annoying. I would be tempted to take in a spray bottle and spritz him when he did that (it’s how I trained my cats; the principle has to be similar).

  31. Marisol*

    One way to reframe this issue is to ask yourself, “where can I do the *greatest* good?” Yes, your coworkers benefit when you help them, and that’s good, but they do even better, and more importantly the company as a whole does even better, when you encourage them to be self-sufficient by NOT helping. Your tough love is even more beneficial to all parties involved.

  32. Lison*

    This advice is very helpful to me but it’s complicated in my case. I am too helpful to others and it keeps coming up in performance reviews and I’m working on it but there are two issues 1) The people who ask for help most are my grand boss and her boss and when I get the feedback its with “As long as it’s not me asking” so I guess I have to help them and if I’m helping them with a specific thing if I then refuse to help other people with it it looks like I’m brown nosing. With everyone else I can refer them to boss who is being excellent but it doesn’t feel like I can tell bigger bosses to stop jumping the chain of command and 2) to ‘help’ me they delegated some of my projects to someone who has not got the eye for detail required (three different fonts in the one four page document, really?) and will not take training/feedback (looks fine to me are you sure? and then actively stops taking my feedback until I involve a manager) It’s exhausting. Bosses seem to agree with my feedback on my ‘help’ but I am still the one fixing if on a ridiculous timeline. Sorry to vent but y’all have such good advice and the question seemed so to fit me I thought I’d ask.

    1. NW Mossy*

      For #1, that’s a totally reasonable line for your chain of command to draw. They’re your management team, so it’s entirely appropriate for them to delegate work to you that you can handle. I’d go so far to argue that it’s actually vital for them to do so because it frees them up to work on the higher-level stuff that you aren’t able to do (either by rank or skill set). I wouldn’t worry one whit about other people thinking, “OMG, Lison’s bosses get support from Lison that I don’t!”, because of course you’d do things for your bosses that you wouldn’t for anyone else! Anyone who wants to give you flack about that is woefully ignorant about how hierarchies work and I’m not sure you can save them from that level of cluelessness.

      For #2, I think you’re falling into a trap of assuming that your bosses are only delegating the doing of the work, rather than both the doing and the responsibility for that work to be of sufficient quality/accuracy. You can absolutely ask for clarity on this, and you should. For example, you can say “Lucinda’s been working the TPS reports for a while now. I’ve been giving feedback (which she’s resisting; cite examples here) when I spot issues, but the output’s still below standard. It’s not sustainable for me to keep correcting the errors at the last minute and doing that is preventing her from understanding the full impact of not doing the work up to standard. At this point, I think it makes sense to turn the work back to her to make the corrections and take ownership of the output. Can you help me reinforce that message with her?”

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I think grandboss and her boss should be asking YOUR boss if you are available to do x task or y task. They should not be jumping line. You can ask your boss how she wants you to handle those requests.

      If no one has mentioned brown-nosing to you I would assume that no one thinks that and let that go, for your own peace of mind. If someone does actually say it, then you just tell them, “I have to do what the bosses say.” Their problem, not yours.

  33. Manager Shmanager*

    One thing that has helped me, non-confrontational person that I am, is that I delay my responsiveness rather than say no outright. So….whereas I used to jump right in and help, I now respond with, “I would love to help! I will be able to get to that first thing tomorrow afternoon”.

    Frequently the person solves their own problem during the delay instead of waiting for me. Also, it gives you time to formulate your approach when you do need to help them. I mastered this when my children were little and needed me “right now!” about 3,565 times a day.

  34. OP*

    I want to thank everyone for their responses so far. There’s been a lot of helpful advice and different ways of looking at this. I also appreciate the kind words.

    I’ve got to get ready to go to work. I’ll surreptitiously keep an eye on my phone and respond when I can. But in the meantime here’s a quick summary of what’s happened between when I wrote in and now.

    I’d written drafts to Alison over a few months. A week after sending it looked like I’d actually left it too late. My boss let me know that I’d mucked up some political stuff and he couldn’t fix it. As a result I wouldn’t be able to move into another area, I’d I’ve to stay where I was and there’d probably be a large pay cut. Not good times at all. I’ve been trying to keep out of things with various success. My boss has commented that while my productivity is still their my responsiveness and attitude has deteriorated (need to work on that). The latest bit of info I have on my position is that it’s been extended a few months with some major changes (nothing said about less pay). I think I’m losing some of the things I like and gaining a lot that I don’t like/are major weak points. I’m also most likely being put into a different reporting line which may have more oversight. Not so good is that means my skill shortages/weaknesses will be more exposed. Good is that I can hopefully get help addressing the deficits. My boss is still talking about moving me to a new area in the future. Not sure why when I’ve caused so many issues. I still need to work on the helpful thing and on rebuilding my confidence in my judgement and abilities.

    1. Jessesgirl72*

      Honestly? I think you could use to look for another job, where you can get a completely fresh start and an opportunity to establish better practices- without the baggage and expectations you carry with you for as long as you stay where you are. Or, somewhere more suited to your natural style. I would say this is important to start now, while you are still a direct report of the boss who likes and advocates for you.

      1. OP*

        You know, I like that fact that you’re like the voice in my head that already tells me stuff like this. It’s easier to work around that voice than it is someone else.

        Yes I know that I should move on. I’m finding that a really scary prospect at the moment. I don’t think I have an objective view of my skills and what I bring to a role. I look at the requirements for related roles and don’t think I meet half of what they’re looking for. I’m also pretty sure that moving to another company/role will pigeon hole me with the stereotypical duties and I hate requirement gathering. Let me design solutions, test, troubleshoot and document. Those are challenging and fun. I’m not sure what other roles I could do/would want to do. Time for more soul searching.

        1. Jessesgirl72*

          It sounds like you’d enjoy the job my husband previously held- bug squashing, designing tools for the rest of the team to use – especially the test group- and some testing too. He didn’t enjoy the documenting part, but it’s a necessary evil. Those skills are widely needed.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I can’t put my finger on it, but my gut says that OP’s boss is actually part of OP’s problem.

        It could be that your job is not clearly defined, OP.
        It could be that there is a definition for your job and your boss has no clue what it is.
        It could be that you are over worked because you are the catch all for everything that has no one else to do it.
        It could be that everyone is running around like crazy because no one knows what they are doing.

        Anyway, IF everything was good (which it isn’t) I cannot see where extending your contract for a few months periodically is an encouraging work environment.

        “You don’t have job.”
        “Whoop, you do have a job.”
        “Oh darn, now you do not have a job.”

        That is a heck of a way to live, OP. How can they expect you to feel committed to your work when they have no commitment to you? No wonder you feel compelled to help everyone, it is like the employer wants you to have some huge debt of gratitude toward them.

        You know. I had a seasonal job that I LOOOVED. It was THE job of my life. Some years I would work 11 months. Other years I would work 5 months. It was all over the map. I wanted them to like me. I wanted them to employ me year round. I stood on my head for this job. I felt indebted to them for any work I had because I just loved this job.

        It was a roller coaster. When it was not a roller coaster it was a merry-go-round. I was either up or down or going in circles. I had to leave the job. The very next thing that happened was I got year round work at my next place. This is more of letting go of something in order to get what we really want. You may need to get off their roller coaster/merry-go-round and find a better employer.

        1. OP*

          I’ve been pondering this one for a bit (specifically about my boss) and I’m not sure how I feel. I know that my boss has done his best to keep me out of things that will distract from my main focus. I know that he’s been clear over a period of time on what he wants me to focus on. Yes I’ve been overworked for a long period of time. Some of that is on me and some of that is on not having other resources. And yes the place is somewhat dysfunctional due to politics (I hate politics). Not sure where I was going with all of this apart from I can’t decide if I agree with that call or not.

          Yes it’s stressful not knowing how long I’ll be working. The way I deal with it is I know my boss had been working to get me a full time position in another area and, ultimately, if everything fell through, I could do with a large block of time off to recover.

          My loyalty’s not to the company. It’s to my boss. He’s earnt that over a decade. Moving on from a manager who knows all my weaknesses and has helped me through a number of issues isn’t easy. This is something that I still need to think on. I admire your courage on moving on from your situation.

    2. halpful*

      ” My boss let me know that I’d mucked up some political stuff and he couldn’t fix it.”

      what does that mean? it’s giving me weird feelings I don’t understand, like something’s kinda off about him saying that.

      1. OP*

        Sorry I wasn’t too clear on that. Basically there were real world, high level consequences to me being too helpful. This disrupted plans to move me/the project and also affected my bosses role. This got to a pretty high level were political capital was needed. My boss had been trying to prevent this from happening by repeatedly telling me to be less helpful.

  35. JB (not in Houston)*

    One thing that helped me years ago was that often, jumping in to help someone unsolicited can, in a way, be kind of an insult. You are acting on a (probably unconscious) assumption that they cannot do it without help, and specifically your help, or that they won’t do it correctly (i.e., your way). This is obviously not true in all situations! But those assumptions are often underlying the jumping in impulse when you are dealing with otherwise competent adults. Even if you truly just want to be helpful–and I always did when I jumped in!–there’s no reason to get involved unless you don’t think the person can do it themselves or if you think they won’t do it the way you think it should be done, unless you’re in a relationship where you know they want that kind of help unasked.

    Even now, before I send a friend a recipe unsolicited, or offer up an article I think will be helpful, I ask myself why I’m sending it and whether it might be because I’ve decided they need to eat healthier, or have this information, etc., rather than it being something I honestly think they’d be interested in.

  36. The Claims Examiner*

    This is actually a super helpful post for me. I just got promoted to office manager and my predecessor is doing a part time project after retirement. It has been very hard to pretend she’s not there and solve problems for myself. I just have to keep reassuring myself that I have the answer!

    1. Zweisatz*

      I always found it’s easier to be self-reliant while problem-solving when my more experienced colleague is sick/on holidays. Otherwise I’m tempted to just ask a quick question instead of looking it up myself. In other words: I feel you.

  37. Sue Wilson*

    To be frank, when it comes to people liking you, being helpful can backfire. There are some people who get so entitled to your help that they think less of you as a human being. So consider that.

  38. animaniactoo*

    OP, I’ve read through more of your responses here, and I have a few questions. Are you familiar with the term people pleaser? Would you say that it applies to you? By any chance are you an ACOA or similar enough situation for it to resonate?

    If so, *and* if you’re interested, I do have more advice for you on breaking your habits and your internal ingrained stuff. I won’t be able to respond until tomorrow morning somewhere around 11ish am EST, but I suspect others will jump in with more specific advice as well if you are interested.

    1. OP*

      I’m familiar with the concept of people pleasers. I’m not familiar with it in the setting you’ve mentioned (had to google ACOA). I suspect growing up with a step father who had undiagnosed mental health issues might be on a similar vein. And yes I think my strategy for dealing with that has been a big part of this issue.

      Always interested in advice/strategies even though I struggle to put them into practice. Thanks in advance

      1. animaniactoo*

        Okay, this got really long. If it’s too much at once, read through some, stop, go away, come back to it later.

        Yes, that situation is likely close enough to produce the same kind of results. Please note that I am not a professional here, I’m a lay person who knows enough to talk somewhat knowledgeably about this kind of stuff.

        First, I strongly urge you to look into counseling while you deal with this; particularly with somebody who specializes in CBT. CBT is essentially a backwards way of working – you change the behavior, you get different feedback, you change the “emotional memory” that prompts the unwanted behavior and loosens the chains of the impulse to reach for it but cutting short the feedback loop. At which point it becomes easier to look at the feedback loop and see where it’s been short-circuiting you and what other places you can be on the lookout for it.


        Note that the rest of my feedback is based on what it sounds like your situation is to me, and what your issues approaching change are. I’m going to outline that so you can take that into account with what I’m going to list as more targeted advice/strategies, and so that you can be clearer about pushing back against the pieces that you think aren’t that true for you.

        My impression is that you don’t just dislike change, you’re actively afraid of it. Because you have a lot of experience with change being not-so-good. You have problems controlling the helpful impulse, because your primary impulse is to please the person in front of you, no matter what else has been said to you. It’s not just the self-worth boost that you get, it’s the active need to not have a problem in your line-of-sight because even minor problems can become big problems in a hurry. So you help, the problem is gone, there’s no more problem, everything is solved, life can be “normal” again. At the same time, you can deal with and in some sense are rewarded by the uncertainty of your job stability, because it puts you in a space that feels “normal” to you. Even as it increases your anxiety and makes you unhappy, it soothes another piece of you, and that may note may be leading to self-sabotage, but I would suspect that’s a much smaller piece than the need to please the person in front of you and get the problem solved over no more problem.

        What all of that means is that your “risk” evaluation in the moment is off and needs a lot of recalibration. Also that you need to train yourself to let people be unhappy with you, with firm footing on why their unhappiness is not your fault even though it may seem like it is when viewed from some skewed perspectives, and that it is also not your problem to solve. When I say not your problem, I mean that it’s their problem to solve and if you’re putting in more work to solving it than they are that’s not fair to either of you. It can take a long while to take that on board and get it ingrained, but when you get there, it’s a life changer.

        I’m going to break the next part in to a separate post, mostly because this has just gotten so long.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Based on that, I would advise you to take the risk of someone being unhappy with you in as low-consequence situations as you can. I saw one person who said their starting point was sending something back at a restaurant that wasn’t done right. They picked a few places that were interesting but new to them, with the theory that if it went belly-up, they could just not go back there. They rehearsed the words to use to send it back in a polite and civil manner – you can even make it warm, but firm that they wanted it changed and done correctly please. So think about stuff like that where you can get practice in pushing back in the face of a possibility of the person in front of you being unhappy with you. Whether it goes well or not, have a pre-planned self-care action that you can take fairly closely afterwards. If it goes wrong, it will help you destress, and if it goes right, it’ll be a reward and a celebration.

          Next, sit down with Fergus, and be clear that you need more guidance about where the help/don’t help line is. Ask him for a meeting and run through scenarios like “customer needs it NOW” and “potential deadline failure” and ask him what *he* is willing to risk and wants you to stay out of and let play out even if it creates a bigger issue for them/him. Those scenarios will be part of the basis for your “What not to do” list. They’ll help with your calibration of risk in the moment and finding the line you’re looking for between being too helpful and stranding your co-workers.

          On the “What not to do” list, you’d want to pair those with a very specific list of “What to do instead” stuff. Because if you don’t have specific ideas and strategies for what to do instead, you’ll reach for the only thing you have – help anyway. One of the things that would be most beneficial to you is an interrupter. This is something that will stop you from immediately acting on the solve impulse, but at the same time won’t put you immediately into the potential negative consequence… you’re kicking it into a holding pattern.

          So, when people come to you for help, you won’t say yes or no immediately. You’ll say “give me a minute to finish this” or “give me a minute to take a look at that and I’ll get back to you” or “give me a minute and I’ll come take a look”. What that minute (or few minutes) is really doing is giving you the space to psychologically prepare yourself to push back and be “unhelpful” if needed. To remind yourself that somebody is probably going to be unhappy(ish) here, and it can be the person in front of you or it can be Fergus – whom you are not very successfully hiding your “helpfulness” from, so trying to do it where he can’t see it really isn’t working either. To give yourself more incentive to thoughtfully choose who you are risking upsetting based on how great the consequences of that risk are and what you are willing to risk.

          Next, what you need is a relatively low-risk pushback for when they pushback at you when you say that Fergus has asked you to be more hands off and not help. A fairly obvious one would be something like “Alright, I need not to get in trouble for this, so do me a favor and ask Fergus if it would be okay to ask me for help here.” Part of what you’re doing is pushing some of that risk back on them. THEY have to be willing to take the risk of asking Fergus, and dealing with the potential consequences of that.

          And you’re not telling them a straight “no”, you’re carrying the implication of “I won’t circumvent the system in place, get it approved and I’ll be happy to help” and “I’ll be helpful withIN the guidelines, not outside of them.” This functions in two ways for you. First, it removes the responsibility for making the decision about whether or not you should help and gives it to Fergus – who wants it and has told you he does. All the while emitting cheerful happy, want to help! vibes. Second, if they have to ask Fergus, there’s a strong likelihood that they will do more to figure it out themselves before taking it up with him. Removing it from your plate entirely.

          And we will now pause for another break…

          1. animaniactoo*

            Some words of caution for you –

            First, you WILL backslide. Expect it, own it, don’t beat yourself up excessively, and move forward again.

            As you start re-working yourself, you’re very likely to get pushback from people in your personal life. Because, hey, lots of people don’t like change – and it will be uncomfortable for them and they’ll have to recalibrate. However, if the people you have in your life are relatively emotionally healthy, they’ll move beyond that pretty quickly and they’ll adjust. If they’re not, you’re going to end up looking for more specific strategies for dealing with them, or whether you want to keep them in your life – or can emotionally afford to. That’s not an immediate question, but it will be something you’re likely to have to deal with at some point, so this is more just to put it out there so that you’re hopefully more prepared for it, and less likely to backoff in surprise/unease at the reaction.

            You are likely to overcorrect in places as you work on this. Be on the lookout for places where you feel *too* vindicated, almost righteously so, as you pushback. That’s a pretty sharp sign that something about your approach/mindset is off. Do your best not to take those as failures to beat yourself up about but rather as information on helping to pull back to a reasonable middle.

            All of that is why I strongly urge you to find a therapist you can work with – somebody who can be your touchstone and give you positive feedback in a structured environment while you deliberately risk some chaos and negativity in another part of your environment. If you can’t for whatever reason right now, then you can’t, but if you can, it’s a gift you can give to yourself. Because it will really help counter it. All of the above strategies will likely help while you get setup with somebody you can feel comfortable working with, but they’ll be more effective if you have specific support while you work on carrying them through.

            1. OP*

              Helpfulness in my personal life is a bit complicated at the moment. There’s a lot of different things going on and I’m the best placed to help. So that may need to go on the back burner for a while.

              That’s for the heads up re over correcting and backsliding. Will have to keep an eye out.

              Thanks for such a detailed response. It’s been very helpful.

          2. OP*

            Oh the thought of sending something back is so uncomfortable and that is with strangers. So clearly my threshold is way too extreme.

            My role is definitely changing and my reporting structure most likely is as well. I spent this afternoon writing a heap of questions to ask Fergus about it. Will be asking him tomorrow to organise a time to go through it. And may also need to expand on the list.

            And I did delay helping someone twice today. Each time I asked them if they’d done/checked certain things. And it was uncomfortable waiting for responses- I kept glancing at the messaging program. I ended up having to go over each time and it was something I had asked/mentioned. So obviously I need to be clearer.

            Not sure what I can do with saying they’ve got to go through Fergus first – due to changes that I don’t fully understand yet. So that may have an impact on what I can/can’t do there.

            I’ve struggled with the idea of being helpfully unhelpful (which is a strategy Fergus has suggested). If I know the answer it feels disingenuous to pretend I don’t or can’t. Another thing to work on.

            1. animaniactoo*

              Personal takeaway – don’t try to pretend you don’t know how to help. I’ve got a 95% probability rating* here that says you place a high emphasis on being known as somebody who is always honest, pretty much no matter what. The likelihood that this is a core piece of your personality is so high that it would be like moving a mountain to change it and would leave you both feeling worse about yourself and cause too many other pieces to shift in a rolling domino of things that don’t really need to be shifted to solve the problem.

              What I would suggest is re-evaluating what honesty you’re giving them. Be clear that “can’t” help is because you’ve been told not to, not because you don’t know the answer or don’t want to. You “can’t” because of a limitation placed on you by somebody else. You are very sorry, but if that’s a problem, it would be best for them to take it up with the person who placed the limitation. They will likely grumble and go away, but it’s key to note that they are grumbling primarily at the situation, and not really at you – if they ARE grumbling at you for not ignoring what you’ve been told and helping them anyway, then that would be about how they are viewing the problem, and it’s still not really about you – even though it feels like it is.

              *Yes, I just made that number up off the cuff based on my sense of you, there is no real statistical analysis behind it.

            2. animaniactoo*

              Followup – was it the same person that you delayed on helping someone with something 2x today?

              1. OP*

                Yes it was

                And yesterday when someone (different person) had something that had to be done for a customer I managed to direct them to two manuals and they worked it out. That one was a lot more stressful.

                1. animaniactoo*

                  I ended up having to go over each time and it was something I had asked/mentioned. So obviously I need to be clearer.

                  Here’s why I asked: You don’t have to bring this answer back here – but examine this for yourself. If it was the same person both times, why is it “obvious” that you need to be clearer rather than that they need follow directions better or read what you’re writing more closely?

                2. halpful*

                  totally offtopic, but, I just noticed animaniactoo got nice quote-formatting by just using a blockquote tag! I must remember that in future, I like it. :) (also, peek at what formatting someone used by opening the comment rss feed url in firefox.)

        2. OP*

          Oh wow. There is a lot of food for thought here. Especially in your fifth and sixth paragraphs.

          Yes change does scare me. I need to know the bounds I can operate in. Where can I push, where do I need to hold back, what buttons/triggers do I need to avoid, what are the mistakes I could make etc. These things help me feel in control.

          That’s a really interesting perspective on seeing problems. It could explain why they make me so uncomfortable and I have to make them go away.

          And this is dumb on my part, I know it’s not healthy, but when you said that their unhappiness is not my fault my immediate reaction was I can’t control what they think but I can control how I act which they may take into account. Which then got me thinking that I’ve always viewed myself as a protector so if someone is unhappy I’ve not protected them.

          Lot to take away from here

          1. animaniactoo*

            …I can’t control what they think but I can control how I act which they may take into account.

            [whispers in your ear] when you’re considering what they may take into account in choosing how to act you are trying to control what they think. We all do this to some extent – we should, it’s part of the dynamic of relationships to try and influence how others will respond to us. The trick is to sort it out so that you’re not taking that impulse to an extreme that is detrimental to you (and them).

            Your other takeaway here is a good one in reflecting on your reaction to someone else’s unhappiness, just a nudge that you’ve got a lot to unpack there.

            Fwiw, when I say their unhappiness is not your fault, what I specifically mean is that they have a choice – conscious or unconscious – about how to view your actions, and if their view is wrapped up in unrealistic expectations of one sort or another, their choice to use that lens to see your actions is their responsibility, not yours. Hard, tough to stand up against. Especially when there’s a semi-logical thought process behind their perspective. But oh so helpful to yourself when you can separate that out and use it to help you refuse to give in on it. Learning how to deal with it in fairly compassionate ways without giving in is part of the skill set, and a major part of the need to get comfortable with people being even minorly upset with you.

            Best of luck to you. I hope the food for thought and some of the strategies help. [hugs]

          2. halpful*

            “I need to know the bounds I can operate in.”

            something I’ve been telling myself lately: it’s hard to know where the line is if you’re not willing to risk stepping a tiny bit over it. :) you’re allowed to make mistakes as you learn to have boundaries. and when you do, then you apologize, learn from it and move on.

            “I can’t control what they think but I can control how I act which they may take into account.”

            that’s managing their feelings. their feelings are not yours to manage. maybe when that happens, focus on your *own* feelings about their potential-feelings, and what comfort and protection *your* feelings need.

            and I second all of animaniactoo’s advice :) CBT good, mindfulness good, self-compassion good. it’s scary but it’s worth it. :) *jedi hugs* …that reminds me, you might enjoy Captain Awkward’s blog (there’s a lot of overlap in readers there and here)

  39. Akcipitrokulo*

    Great advice :) but was this a typo?

    “* “I know I’ve helped with this in the past, but Fergus has asked me to assist with that anymore. I think he wants you and Jane to handle that yourselves. But there are pretty detailed instructions in the manual to walk you through it!””

    should it be

    “* “I know I’ve helped with this in the past, but Fergus has asked me NOT to assist with that anymore. I think he wants you and Jane to handle that yourselves. But there are pretty detailed instructions in the manual to walk you through it!””

  40. Kimberly R*

    OP, I am a chronic helper and I am also seen as the quick/smart/bright one. I am finding that my work is bogging down because I’m jumping up to help people. I’m working on pushing back, but as a baby step in that direction, when someone comes to me with a problem and they want my help (on something that isn’t my job), I will say, “I can help you but it will be after tasks X, Y, and Z-those have to be my priority right now.” This isn’t saying No yet (which I need to get to!), but it is telling them that I can only help with their tasks after mine are complete. Most of the time, those people will figure it out long before I could help them because they need to have it done sooner. I will still check in later, “So did you still need help figuring out how to put the spout on?” but usually they’ll tell me they figured it out or consulted the manual.

  41. Zahra*

    For everyone who ends up being the informal tech support at work, here’s a convenient cheat sheet that you could print and display near your workstation/cubicle/desk: (my very favorite xkcd cheat sheet!)

  42. Mellow*

    Saw the comments for this thread were still open and thought I’d chime in.

    I and five other of my co-workers are on the receiving end of another of our coworker’s over-helpfulness; let’s call her Carol.

    While I think I speak for my coworkers when I say that we believe Carol to be well-intentioned, her codependence to other people’s neediness – which I define here as normal questions related to normal problem-solving – makes her a pain. We find ourselves constantly fending her off. Privately, I believe she has seriously unmet emotional needs, which she seemingly tries to fulfill at work vis-a-vis attempts at surrogate mothering, rescuing, doing for, fixing, helping. She inserts herself into nearly everything without inquiring first whether she can be of assistance, and is constantly forwarding what she thinks the rest of us would find to be of interest, alhough these things are nearly always unrelated to work; all the while, claiming she is super busy and can she please have an extension on work things. You know the type: works a 70-hour week and has almost nothing to show for it.

    This may not be OP’s exact situation, but there are elements in his or her description that remind me of my own relative to Carol. At a minimum, Carol constantly sends the message that the rest of us can’t do without her, although I suspect her real fear is the reality that we actually can.

    I wish our boss would reign her in, much as the OP’s boss seems to be doing, but our boss is the kind of person who shouldn’t be in a leadership role in the first place, and thus relies on Carol for nearly everything because he is so very risk-aversive (in an environment where risk-taking and learning from possible failure is encouraged; go figure).

    I’d examine some of your deeper impulses, OP. It seems as though they are driven by something entirely unrelated to your workplace and work habits.

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