It's OK. You can admit you've been down in the dumps or spewing invisible flames of fire from your head at work. It's unfortunately become the American norm, with four out of five workers saying they're stressed out on the job. The sad part is, things could be so much better if people would make a habit of asking just one simple question:

"Can I help you with anything?"

Support for an environment of service

In October 2016, a Londoner identified simply as Joe did a kindness experiment, asking people if he could do something for them. The services he performed were simple--holding an umbrella, paying for a coffee, covering a bus fare. But the response was overwhelming, with a video of his selfless deeds shared a whopping six million times on Facebook.

In addition to Joe's big-hearted activities, a study led by Robert Liden showed that companies with "servant leaders" enjoyed 6 percent higher job performance, 8 percent more customer service behaviors, and 50 percent higher employee retention. Sandy Wayne, an author on the study, stated, "The best business leadership style is far from 'Do this. Don't do that.' A servant leader looks and sounds a lot more like 'Is there anything I can do to help you?' . . . This approach helps employees reach their full potential."

Why the question is so effective

Data indicating that people respond to the "Can I help you?" atmosphere might come as a surprise given American company culture, which typically says the boss is the boss and everybody else had better hop to. But it makes a lot of sense given psychology.

  • Healthy ego and self-esteem appeal: sends the message that the other person deserves to be treated well.
  • Need for inclusion: communicates that the person is seen and respected and, therefore, part of the group. He or she doesn't have to fear isolation and subsequent decreased survival odds.
  • Fear of missing out: extra support eases the worry among your employees that they will fail and miss social, financial, or material opportunities.
  • Evolutionary modeling: employees will tend to copy the kind, supportive behavior of their assertive bosses or co-workers because, from the evolutionary perspective, following the alpha in the group increases the odds of surviving and eventually attaining a dominant position.
  • Novelty and information access: offers bosses and co-workers the opportunity to learn something new about the people they lead or work with; challenges them to get involved and know more of what's going on in employees' lives and processes on the job.

Rephrasing as a statement doesn't work

A reworking of "Can I help you with anything?" is "If there's anything I can do for you, let me know." Don't make the common error of opting for this statement version. Using a statement gives a more closed feel to the conversation, essentially saying "Despite the kind intent, we're done." It forces people to take more initiative and bring their needs up later, and many people aren't willing to do that because they don't want to come across as dependent, weak, or bothersome.

One last hurdle to conquer

Humans have developed a biological-based need to feel as though they are in control, because again speaking in evolutionary terms, obligation (non-dominance) increases poor survival odds. Subsequently, sometimes, when you ask if you can help someone, they worry that you have ulterior motives, and that you're going to pull them into a situation where they lose control and become obligated to you. Being upfront that you just want to keep the team efficient, or that it makes you feel good to be nice to others, goes a long way in dismantling this protective suspicion.

A simple solution to complex work problems

People often want to support others, but they get stuck because they can't identify the needs those around them have. The solution is simple. Just ask! The more you ask, the more they'll realize they don't have to shoulder everything alone, the more they'll trust you, and the stronger your entire team will be.