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.

4 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:


    I think this is a terrific hip-pocket guide for folks in relationship, not just at work.

    It’s interesting that the Easter-egg hunt “help” scenario involves a three-year old. Our orientation to the world and others in it is created largely between the ages of three to seven. It’s here that our innate tendencies to interrelate, ask for help, and be otherwise social are formed during this stage of child development.

    However, not all children are supported during this time to ask for help. For every Maia, there are countless children who are taught not to ask for help (who respond with a no, me, mine!!…) With a (consistent parental or primary care-giver, or family member, or teacher, etc., pattern of a) glance, a gesture, a shake of the head, a finger-wagging, or a verbal cue (“not now,” “I’m busy,” “be a man/lady and do it yourself,” “don’t be a cry-baby” and the like, many children are taught while very young they are “bad” or wrong ” in asking for help.

    The sad thing is these children internalize this self-image and bring this belief that asking for help is wrong into adolescence and adulthood.

    My suggestion would be that when we encourage co-workers and others to ask for help, we also bring to light the fact that they may be reluctant to do so because of experiences they may have had early on, experiences they may have forgotten about, or remember but are reluctant to admit – in either case experiences which have left an indelible imprint on their psyche that will take time to erase.

    If we bring this out into the open, say it’s normal in many families and that it’s not the “truth” (no one was born with the tendency not to ask for help; it’s a learned behavior) that asking for help is “bad” or “wrong,” we can compassionately support those for whom asking, and allowing their vulnerability, feels challenging and threatening.

    This practice creates a common ground where many can relate(their not-so-pleasant childhood experiences around asking for help) to one another and slowly melt the walls and defenses they have erected as a result.

    This mutual understanding and “outing the elephant” is the “secret sauce” that, for some, makes the practice of asking for help easier and less threatening. It’s a more compassionate and humane way of saying “it’s ok to ask” and often garners a more in-depth, real response than “I know it’s ok,” but never acting on that knowing.

  2. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:


    I love the line from Ed Schein about collaboration as “consistent effective mutual helping.” Thanks for sharing that.

    And Peter, thanks as always for helping all of us look more deeply and compassionately at ourselves and others.

  3. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    You are absolutely on the money with your analysis of how to build relationships. We found in amost every case we looked at where a major project had been won, the early stages were all about building relationships though activities that the client defined. The client’s priorities. Your priciples of helping are exactly correct – the relationships grow from joint action and the discussions and discovery journey that is shared.

  4. julian powe
    julian powe says:

    Delightful comments Sandy, Peter, and Chris ( and good to hear your voice Chris!). Thanks!

    Two themes come up strongly for me as a result.

    With your comments Chris, the sense that the early days of a client relationship are above all about earning the right to be helpful, above all through listening, establishing common ground, delivering what is helpful.

    And your striking focus Peter on our backgrounds as children and our raising of kids now, makes me think hard about how much I ( and other parents and schools) are also encouraging our kids to be on top of things, to be in control, guidance that can easily exclude the sense of vulnerability needed to ask for help. A reminder to self to encourage that balance, both in how I raise my kids but also do better at modelling it for them.




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