I was getting lumber at Home Depot and noticed a man about 20 feet away struggling to move a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood onto his cart. "Need some help?" I called.

"Thanks," he said. "I'm good."

A couple days later, I was pushing a cart down the aisle and noticed a man struggling to stack some 4' x 12' drywall sheets on a cart. "Need some help?" I asked. 

"Appreciate the offer," he said. "But I'm OK."

A couple of days later -- clearly, I suck at supply planning -- I noticed a man struggling to sift through some 2' x 6' x 16's (think heavy and awkward) stacked on a head-high rack. This time I didn't ask; I just grabbed the far end of the board he was holding and helped him move it.

"Hey, thanks," he said, and we sorted through the stack until he had the 10 boards he needed.

Why did he accept my help when the others didn't? It's unlikely they were embarrassed to accept assistance -- research shows that over 99 percent of people who receive an act of kindness feel happy, grateful, and pleased.

So maybe it was because my sincerity was in question. When I asked people whether they needed help, I could have just been going through the (courtesy) motions.

But when I jumped in to help without asking, ambiguity was off the table -- because my actions proved I was happy to help.

My Kindness Test

My lumber yard "research" dovetails nicely with actual research on compliments. A study conducted on praise and recognition shows that, while 88 percent of respondents associate feeling valued with recognition, nearly 70 percent also "associate embarrassment or discomfort" with the process of being recognized.

Or, in the case above, with being recognized for needing help.

That's especially true if, like me -- sometimes I think imposter syndrome is my best friend -- an individual's self-esteem isn't particularly high. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology​ found that people with low self-esteem struggle to accept compliments because they doubt their sincerity and wonder if they're somehow being patronized.

In short, if you ask someone if they need help, they might assume the offer is just lip service. Or even a little condescending.

So I decided to add some data points to my "research." Here's what I found:

  • There's an inverse relationship between distance and acceptance: The farther away you are from the person you offer to help, the less likely they are to accept. Makes sense. If saying yes means I have to walk 30 feet to start to help, that seems like even more of a bother.
  • But jumping right in isn't always the best move: A couple times, it seemed like me grabbing the end of a heavy object without asking came across as a kind of invasion, whether of space or privacy or something else.
  • And how you "ask" matters: Leading with a generic, "Can I help you?" is much less effective than stating your willingness to help. "I'll grab this end." "Let me keep the cart from moving." "I'm going that way; I'll push this side." That turns helping into doing something together.
  • Especially if you show a little vulnerability: Saying "I hate trying to do this by myself," or "Last time I did this on my own it seemed to take a lifetime," shows you often need and appreciate help.

The (Real) Kindness Test

Actual science backs up my admittedly limited findings. When researchers at the University of Sussex conducted the 60,000 person Kindness Test, the most common reason respondents gave for not being kind was the fear of misinterpretation

They wanted to help, or to do something thoughtful or kind, but they were afraid their offer might be taken the wrong way -- or even cause offense.

Even though that almost always turned out to not be the case.

And that's especially unlikely when your offer to help is made in a way that demonstrates your sincerity.

The next time you want to help someone, layer in a little emotional intelligence and put yourself in the other person's shoes.

Instead of offering to help from a literal or figurative distance, put yourself in a physical position to actually help. Stand up. Walk over. Make helping as immediate as possible. (In a figurative sense, that might mean opening the Google Doc you know a colleague is struggling with so you're ready to jump right in.) 

Then, offer to do something specific instead of just saying "Can I help you?" Offer to grab an end. Or hold a cart. Or say, "I'm going that way...want me to carry the other box?" Showing that you know what is involved shows you know what you're getting into, and therefore that your offer is sincere.

And then show a little vulnerability of your own. As you're helping, say "These things are really awkward." Say "I'm not sure why they make it so hard to load these." Say "I can't remember the last time I didn't struggle to use a slicer to link multiple pivot tables." 

Do that, and you show you're the kind of person who helps other people because you often need help -- and appreciate it.

Do that, and you're also more likely to create an environment where offering to help others is the norm. You're also more likely to create an environment where accepting help is the norm. 

You're more likely to create the kind of environment that helps turn a collection of individuals into a real team.

Because kindness isn't just a good thing.

It's also good business.