If you're not careful, a gold star is all you'll get.

The dangers of being a good helper

One of the life lessons I learned from earning Eagle Scout is the importance of being helpful. This has always moved me ahead in my personal and professional lives. Finding a need and filling it. Giving assistance to someone who needs it. Being the first to come up with a solution to a problem. Being helpful makes you valuable.

Every upside comes with downsides. If you’re not careful, being a good helper can limit your career success and undermine your personal well-being. Here are some of the dangers of being a good helper and how to avoid them.

People ask you to do things they can do for themselves.

You see someone trying to do something you know you can do better and faster. Or someone is attempting to take on a role for the first time. Rather than see them flounder, you offer to do it for them. They appreciate your help. They appreciate it so much they ask you to do the task for them the next time it comes up. And to help them with other tasks that seem difficult because they trust you to do them. In time, you’re doing their work as well as your own. This is called learned helplessness. You make people dependent on you and cut everyone’s productivity.

What to do instead: Use helping time as training time. If people are genuinely struggling with a new task, help them when necessary, but use this help to teach them how to do the work. You may have to answer questions the next time they do that task, but they will be less dependent on you. They will gain self-efficacy, and you won’t have to do someone else’s job.

People set unrealistic expectations for you.

Part of being helpful is being dependable. Someone gives you a task, and you always complete it on schedule. Management can take advantage of your dependability. They can expect you to take on excess work at unrealistic schedules because they assume you will deliver as always.

What to do instead: Set realistic expectations with management. When I’ve been given a tight deadline, I discuss various options for meeting the schedule. We may need additional resources or focus on the highest priorities and defer other items. I also inform them of the risks if we try to meet an unrealistic deadline with the limitations we have, such as lower product quality and poor customer satisfaction. Ask other departments for support because they’re suffering from the same tight deadlines you are.

Being helpful and dependable doesn’t mean asking “How high?” when management says “Jump!” That’s just setting yourself up for failure. It’s more helpful to set realistic expectations and accomplish what is possible with the time and resources you have.

You get taken for granted and overlooked.

Helpful people are good at the grind. You take on the necessary tasks that make an organization run. But those are not the tasks that get people recognition. Those are the grand and showy tasks, like the salesperson who brought in the big sale or the marketing team whose booth at a trade show got the most leads.

Promotions also go to standouts in an organization. As a good helper, you’re considered a good team member—but not someone who would be considered to lead a team.

What to do instead: Find ways to stand out. This is where being helpful can be beneficial. Ask to help in a high-visibility project. Take on a leadership role in one part and use your training ability to strengthen the team. Show your value to the organization.

Also, don’t neglect your own self-development. I joined Toastmasters in 1991 because I wanted to further my career by improving my public speaking skills. This has been a tremendous help in many areas. Your willingness to grow and expand your skills is another way to stand out while helping others and yourself.

You become a bottleneck.

This is a danger you create for yourself. Being helpful makes you valuable, but you also think it makes you indispensable. You feel if you make yourself a super helper, take on additional work, and still deliver at unrealistic deadlines, you will be low on the list when the company has to downsize. But such a pace is unsustainable. You can only do so much before your quality and productivity suffer. Rather than being an asset, you become a liability. The company would rather have someone who works smarter than harder, and they find enough reasons to let you go.

What to do instead: Let go of the need to be needed. This sounds contradictory, but making others less dependent on you makes you more valuable.

Your ability to train others and spread work around makes you more needed. The company trusts you to teach people how to perform tasks the right way. You stand out because you make the whole organization more productive. And when the company doesn’t have to depend on you to be a worker bee, they can move you into positions of leadership.

Learn to be the right kind of good helper.

Being helpful is about finding a need and filling it. Sometimes, that need is teaching people how to do tasks more efficiently. Or letting management know about unrealistic goals and offering more realistic solutions. Doing work others can do for themselves and making them dependent on you is not being a good helper. Helping others grow and making the whole organization better is.

The one person you should never forget to help is yourself. Set boundaries. Don’t do things for others that they can do for themselves. Don’t overwork yourself to the point you’re hurting yourself personally and professionally. Continue your self-growth and believe in your own value.

Looking at being helpful this way has always moved me ahead in my personal and professional lives. I hope this story helps you in your own growth.