How do leaders react when followers offer unsolicited help?

How do leaders lead in a complex environment? Leaders often rely on help from others. The role of leaders has become increasingly complex given greater task interdependence, fast-changing business environments, and greater need for collaboration for innovation. As a result, leaders’ capacity to receive and make good use of help from organizational members is necessary for them to effectively deal with dynamic and complicated demands.

However, not all help is necessarily beneficial to leaders, especially when it is offered without being asked (i.e., unsolicited help). On the one hand, leaders who receive unsolicited help from their followers can leverage this help to identify potential issues emerging at work, which allows the leaders to handle dynamic surroundings more easily. On the other hand, it is also possible that leaders may respond negatively to receipt of unsolicited help. This is because receiving such help can be disruptive and intervene their workflow. Thus, unsolicited help can be beneficial or detrimental for leaders.  

Our research investigated approach orientation as one of leaders’ characteristics that enables them to make good use of receiving unsolicited help from their followers. Approach orientation is an individual trait that motivates people to move towards desirable stimuli. Individuals with a strong approach orientation have a high sensitivity to gains and benefits. We find that leaders who have a strong approach orientation (and thus are more likely to focus on potential gains and benefits of unsolicited helping) will perceive receipt of unsolicited help in a more positive light and make good use of it. Conversely, leaders with a weak approach orientation (and thus are less likely to identify how unsolicited help can benefit them) perceive receipt of unsolicited help in a more negative light and do not make good use of the offered help.

In conclusion, our research provides important messages to organizational leaders. First, leaders’ approach orientation shapes their capacity to make good use of receiving unsolicited help from their followers. Thus, organizations may provide training for leaders to see unsolicited help in a more approach-oriented mindset (i.e., what’s in it for them?). When leaders can see the potential of the offered help to improve work functioning, they are more likely to welcome followers’ offering of such help.

Second, we encourage helpers (e.g., followers) and recipients (e.g., leaders) to communicate on a regular basis to get to know each other’s preference for offering and receiving help. Those who offer help should be aware that their provision of unsolicited help will not always lead the recipients to appreciate and benefit from it. Those who receive help should also be more vocal in expressing their preference on how they want to receive help. For example, they can give a heads-up to others that they prefer to receive help when they explicitly request it (e.g., please wait until I ask for help first). They can also set a time on a regular basis to provide opportunities for others to offer help. 


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.