The Napkin Shelf

Sometimes people want to help. Sometimes they insist on helping, in fact. And many times those people are worse than unhelpful – they’re an active hindrance. Still, you want (or even need) to maintain relationships with those very people outside of this particular circumstance. What do you do?

Have you ever seen an older movie or television show where a woman unexpectedly goes into labor and has to deliver a baby somewhere inconvenient? Someone will take charge and give people instructions, and the instruction for the husband is usually something like “go boil some water.” Do you know why?

To get the husband out of the room.

While there’s an outside chance that some sterilized water may be necessary, it probably won’t be. The main reason you have the husband doing that is so he isn’t doing anything else, like getting in the way. (Nowadays, this is a pretty sexist and patronizing view, but that’s not the point.)

So, have people boil water. Usually, this isn’t a negative – you’re doing someone a favor. They want to help, and you want them around in general. So you help them help you, even if there’s nothing to do.

When I worked at my very first job, often my boss would find work for us to do even if there really wasn’t any in order to make sure we were making money. One time he told us to go “organize the napkin shelf,” so we did. About fifteen minutes into the task, my coworker said “organizing the napkin shelf” and we split our sides laughing at the absurdity of the task we were working so diligently on. But even then we recognized that we weren’t being treated badly – quite the opposite. We were being treated extremely well, because the alternative to this task was to leave, unpaid. We wanted to work, and our boss wanted to support his employees, even without much to actually do.

This happens all the time. Your clients want to “help” with something they shouldn’t even touch. Your junior intern wants to help but it’s a sensitive task. Your kid wants to help you make dinner. No matter what the situation is, if you want to keep that person around, give them something to do. Let them organize the napkin shelf.

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