Help, Leadership and Teamwork

“I helped Maia and Maia helped me”… was the breathless comment of a three year old at the end of a very successful Easter egg hunt recently; she had formed a partnership with an equally ambitious four year old egg-hunter to be clear winners in the task of finding (and consuming!) as many Easter eggs as possible.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a Chief Operating Officer said to me last week that senior leadership relationships in his organization were improving through an increased readiness to approach colleagues with the simple request, ‘I need some help. Please do me a favour.’ It had not been easy to start to do this, he pointed out, because it had implied a declaration of vulnerability but the results were making it most worthwhile.

As leaders strive to build the agile, trust-based cultures that fuel the quality conversations – strategic, creative, curious, experimental – needed to generate breakthrough ideas and breakthrough execution, I notice them using more and more the language and approaches of ‘help.’ Are you noticing this too?

Thinking About Helping

If so, we might turn to Ed Schein’s 2009 book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. Schein suggests ‘what we think of as effective teamwork, collaboration and co-operation can all be understood best as consistent effective mutual helping.’ He defines teamwork as ‘a state of multiple reciprocal helping relationships including all members of the group that have to work together. Building a team therefore is not just creating one client/helper relationship but simultaneously building one among all the members.’

Schein points out the many challenges involved in giving and receiving help. As receivers of help, we can often feel diminished or ‘one down’ when offered help. As givers of help, we must consciously pause and turn away from what seems to be most pressing at the time in what are often very busy, hectic lives.

Principles of Helping

Three principles and tips stand out from Schein’s advice to leaders:

  1. Task interdependence is the foundation of strong mutual helping relationships. Maia of the Easter egg hunt understood perfectly that she and her little friend had better chances working together than did others searching on their own. Similarly, a VP of Sales and a VP of Operations in an IT Services company have formed a very strong ‘helping’ relationship around the challenging task of entering a new market. Schein argues that, without these mutually important tasks, it is very difficult to form strong ‘helping’ relationships. He zeroes in on the importance of solicited, specific, descriptive and goal-related feedback–enabling colleagues to become more helpful.
  2. The strongest helping relationships occur when both giver and receiver are ready, and the relationship is equitable. He urges the giver of help to check whether the person she wants to help is ready and able to receive it; and the receiver to give regular feedback on what is and is not helpful—in particular, being clear when help is no longer required.
  3. Effective helping starts with pure inquiry, a strong effort to understand and empathise with the needs of the person requiring help. No matter how clear the request for help, he urges us to pause and reflect, truly to listen, and to challenge our own assumptions. This is particularly important at the beginning of a helping relationship because it enhances the status of the one being helped, and maximises the information available to the helper.

The Trust Equation and Helping

The Trust Equation supplements Schein’s notions as a strong frame for effective helping relationships. To be truly helpful to you, I focus on your needs, not mine (low Self-orientation); you are safe raising any issue you wish with me, and I will engage with you at both emotional and rational levels (high Intimacy); when you ask for advice, I will be clear and truthful (high Credibility); and you can rely on me to be available to you when needed (high Reliability).

I recently saw one CEO commit to his organization to:

  1. Encourage open feedback across my leadership team about the pursuit of the team’s collective and individual goals. Above all, cultivate a readiness in the team to say ‘I am not sure’, ‘I need some thoughts on this one’, ‘This is not quite going as we would wish it to.’
  2. Adopt an even more inquiring approach with my colleagues, really listening in order to understand their needs for help, and challenging my own assumptions about what I think they need.
  3. Check in regularly on what help is needed and how this is changing.
  4. Invite help myself, showing my own vulnerability as a result. Acknowledge my own deficit of understanding and knowledge in numerous matters.

He will help his organization and his organization will help him. Just like the Maia egg-hunting partnership.