Why and How to Become a Helpful Boss

October 31, 2020
Wally Bock

Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger were researching resilience when they discovered something about helpfulness. Here it is.

“Helping and serving others reinforces the connection people have with their colleagues, but it also increases our sense of wellbeing and can lower depression.”

Helpfulness is good for your mental health and overall wellbeing. That’s great for you. But Folkman and Zenger also discovered that helpful bosses are more effective.

They looked at 97,776 leaders whose direct reports rated them on helping behaviors. They looked at about 500,000 of those direct reports. They asked the direct reports about their intent to leave the company and their willingness to provide discretionary effort when necessary.

The helpful leaders had the fewest people thinking of leaving. They had the most people willing to give additional effort. Bottom line: helpfulness makes you feel better and helps improve your results.

That’s good news. Here’s better news. You don’t need any special gifts to be a helpful boss.

Are You Naturally Helpful?

Many of the top-performing bosses I studied were also among the most helpful. Most of them seemed to do it naturally. Other folks, like me, get absorbed in our tasks and aren’t as helpful as we could be. For me, maybe for you, the challenge is getting from less helpful to more helpful.

You must consciously develop and practice the habit of helpfulness. You must learn to do what helpful bosses do.

Do What Helpful Bosses Do

Learn what helpful bosses do. Then, adapt what they do for your personality and situation. That way, you’re most likely to get the results that helpful leaders get. Start with a simple behavior.

Great bosses touch base a lot. That’s also the core behavior of helpful bosses. Touch bases so you become a routine part of work life. Touch base to learn about your team members, what they do, and what’s important to them. When you touch base, have conversations.

Have conversations about all kinds of things, not just work. If it’s hard for you to start a conversation, try asking a simple question.

One of my early bosses began every visit with, “What are you working on?” That’s the kind of open-ended question that leads to a conversation. Other bosses I’ve known asked questions like “What’s the most interesting thing in your world this morning?” And “How’d your son’s soccer game go?”

You do that all the time. The trouble comes when you start thinking of your conversations with people at work as some special kind of “work conversation.” They’re not. They’re just conversations between two human beings who work together. So, have that conversation. Listen a lot and ask questions. That’s how you learn.

Relationships develop from conversations. When you talk with the people you work with about all kinds of things, including work, it’s easier to do all the other things you have to do as a boss.

The Magic Question

In the many conversations, you’ll hear about something your team member is trying to do. That’s when it’s time for The Magic Question.

Doug Conant and Mette Norgaard inspired this in their book, Touchpoints. They call it “the four magic words.” I prefer “The Magic Question.” Here it is:

“How can I help?”

After you ask that question, shut up. Listen intently to the answer. Your team member may have a specific request. Or, he or she might outline the situation they’re facing and leave you to come up with ideas.

Discuss the answer you heard. Act on what you hear.

Common Ways You Can Help

Helpful bosses don’t just ask The Magic Question. They don’t just promise help. They deliver. Here are common ways you can help.

You may be able to give permission for something to proceed or for your team member to try something. Your permission might not be necessary, but you can offer validation for what your team member wants to do.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is clear the way. Your team member has a good plan but there are resources or permissions they can’t get on their own.

Provide the resources they need. Some resources are obvious, like money. Others are not, like authority, training, and time.

Sometimes, you can help by offering suggestions. You’re a pair of “fresh eyes” on the subject. Share your insights.

Sometimes, the way you help is by explaining. Usually, that’s about why we do or don’t do things a certain way. Sometimes, it’s about the strategy that your team’s work fits into.

Many times, you won’t be able to help right away. That’s when the phrase, “I’ll get back to you on that” is important. That’s a promise. Keep it. You may find that evaluating the situation takes longer than you thought. Then, let your team member know what you’re doing and when you expect to have more to give them.


Being helpful can improve your wellbeing and mental health. It can also improve your performance as a boss.

Develop the habit of helpfulness.

Touch base a lot and have conversations that build relationships.

When you sense an opportunity, ask the magic question, “How can I help you?”

When you’ve committed to helping a team member, keep them informed about what you’re doing.

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In addition to writing the Three Star Leadership blog, Wally Bock is an author, ghostwriter, writing coach and book doctor. In his past lives he has run a small publishing company, been a popular keynote speaker to audiences around the world, and served as a U. S. Marine. He loves good beer, good friends, and good stories.

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