When helpful is unhelpful


Tell me what you think about me.

No, I’m serious! Please, tell me what you think about this scenario.

A while ago I spoke at a small research meeting. I gave a 20 minute talk on my science. I engaged with my audience, answered general and specific questions, and hopefully came across as knowledgable and measured.

I also arrived early on the day of the meeting as the organisers had mentioned they would like some support. I carried piles of papers to the meeting room, helped to fill up water jugs, and dispensed snacks. When the meeting was over, I helped clean up.

None of the other meeting attendees did this. They’re all nice guys who work hard, respect their colleagues, and have all been in the team much longer than I.

When the other members of the forum arrived, I was there setting up water glasses, looking like a meeting organiser rather than an invited meeting member. I wondered, as I handed out agendas: am I helping my career here, or being alarmingly unhelpful?

Here I was thinking that providing an extra pair of hands is generally a good thing: it seems logical to me that helping out if needed is beneficial for your interpersonal relationships and career.

But maybe that’s not true? Maybe it’s rude and condescending to help with a job that is someone else’s, or professionally a bad look to set up the chairs for a conference at which you will be speaking?

The gender issue also crossed my mind. Assisting in unpaid activities overwhelmingly falls on the shoulders of female organisation members, particularly in academia.

While I have not seen this so much in my career to date, I did wonder if the other (predominately senior, predominately male) meeting attendees thought less of me because I was doing some non-academic tasks. Would they have thought more of me if I arrived late, looking frazzled and important?

I genuinely don’t know. But the experience left me feeling slightly uneasy, as though I had made a mistake.



Tell me what you think about this?

Do you help with jobs outside your core role?

Have you found it helpful, or is being helpful sometimes, well, not?