Help Fuels Team Effectiveness

By Jean Marie Johnson

  • "How important is it for people to be helpful to one another at work?"
If I asked you that question, how would you respond?

Well, I have asked that question. And while my "findings" are informal and unscientific, the most common response, by far, is: "Extremely, of course!"

Yet, some reward and recognition systems continue to reinforce a highly-competitive environment amongst co-workers. You know the thinking that underlies this strategy: if we pit employees against one another, they'll be "motivated" to do better.

But we know better. Help from the people around us, in the many forms we receive it, is essential to our individual and team successes.  

Help Makes the Difference

Just ask McKinsey researcher Adam Grant who contends that "The amount of help a group's members give one another is among the strongest predictors of group effectiveness." That's a strong claim which Grant backs up with three compelling examples of how help and helpfulness matter.

  • 1.  After 9/11, a team of Harvard psychologists, led by Richard Hackman, studied what makes intelligence units effective. The conclusion? Here's Grant's summary:
  • "The single strongest predictor of group effectiveness was the amount of help that analysts gave to each other. In the highest performing teams, analysts invested extensive time and energy in coaching, teaching, and consulting with their colleagues. These contributions helped analysts question their own assumptions, fill gaps in their knowledge, gain access to novel perspectives, and recognize patterns in seemingly disconnected threads of information."
  • Certainly, the circumstances that engendered these findings were singular and extreme. And yet, the impact resonates with our own experience of working through complex problems and challenging customer situations.
  • 2.  Grant also cites studies led by Indiana University's Philip Podsakoff which revealed that:
  • "The frequency with which employees help one another predicts sales revenues in pharmaceutical units and retail stores; profits, costs, and customer service in banks; creativity in consulting and engineering firms; productivity in paper mills; and revenues, operating efficiency, customer satisfaction, and performance quality in restaurants.
  • Across these diverse contexts, organizations benefit when employees freely contribute their knowledge and skills to others."
  • 3.  The third piece of evidence provided by Grant is perhaps the most revealing. He cites the work of psychologists Stella Anderson and Larry Williams who discovered that:
  • "Direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations."
  • That's right:  when in need at work and on the job, we turn to one another.

Why Do We Help?

Theories abound as to why we humans help one another. They range from the deeply altruistic to the well, purely selfish, as in What's In It For Me? (WIIFM). Here's a synopsis:

  • the social exchange theory suggests we help others so that we can maximize our own rewards
  • the arousal-cost theory suggests we help others when they are in need to reduce our own unpleasant or anxious feelings
  • the empathy-altruism theory suggests that we identify with the person in need and so are motivated to help
  • the evolutionary theory suggests if I help you, I am also protecting myself.  It also suggests that we expect the "favor" to be returned.  Which relates to …
  • the reciprocity theory which suggests that others will help us if we have helped them And finally, there's …
  • the social responsibility theory that suggests we help because we think we're supposed to. End of story.
What do you think? Or, more to the point, which of these theories, at face value, rings true for you? What motivates your desire to be helpful?

The Experience of Being Helpful

Certainly, you are generous in helping your customers and clients. You may even define the work that you do, the role that you play and the contribution you make as simply "helping people." The Five MAGIC® Steps make it easy; or, at least, easier. You may not think twice about extending your helpfulness wholeheartedly to your "internal customers" as well.  

Go ahead: think about a situation at work where you said to a co-worker "I'm here to help," or asked "Anything I can do to help?" or simply "Need help?" Now think back to what you thought and how you felt about extending yourself in a helpful way. Which of the following describe your experience of being helpful?:

  • I used my skills and strengths
  • I drew from actual experience
  • I reinforced/confirmed what I thought I knew
  • I invested in the outcome
  • I helped my team's results
  • I became more attuned to my co-worker's experience
  • I invested in the relationship with my co-worker
  • I helped my co-worker solve a problem
  • I helped my co-worker develop
  • I felt good about contributing
  • I felt good about myself
I don't know about you, but I checked most of these. It feels good to share what I know, what I've learned (often through trial and just as often through error) and what I have experienced. For me, being part of a dynamic and passionate team that is always growing and developing sparks my engine and fuels my helpfulness!

Why Don't We Ask for Help?

In a recent IBM-sponsored study of over 1,700 Chief Executive Officers from 64 countries and 18 industries worldwide, 75% of respondents identified "collaboration" as the key driver of employee success. Collaboration may be defined in a variety of ways, but any way you slice it, helpfulness is a key component.

We know that being helpful is good for our relationships, our customers' experience and our business results. But, while we may be more than ready to provide help, asking for it may be more of a challenge. There may be good reasons for this. You may not ask for help for practical reasons:

  • You don't know who to ask—you know there is a subject matter expert out there somewhere, but you don't know who that is
  • You don't want to take advantage of others—your co-workers have enough to do

More commonly, a reluctance to ask for help is rooted in how you think and what you believe:

  • You've been "taught" that asking for help is a sign of weakness—and that doesn't feel good
  • You don't want to look foolish or incompetent—you don't want to lose face.

Rethinking a Request for Help

These are realistic barriers, but they aren't immutable. Consider how you might reframe how you think about asking for help. For example:

  • 1.  Information and expertise are everywhere; it's a matter of scouting them out. Begin to consciously identify each person's strengths. Hmmm … Carlos is great with the new processing software. And Jenna has nailed the problem resolution protocol. And nobody generates sales leads like Cherise. Exactly! Think of the strengths that your co-workers possess as a pool of wisdom, talent and expertise that they are almost always willing to share, to help with. Just be sure to reciprocate when they need your help—which of course means that you need to be able to readily identify your own strengths and talents.
  • 2.  Your co-workers have a lot on their plate. So, make it easier for them to help you by being respectful of their time. Hey, Cherise … I know you are awesome at generating sales leads. Do you think I could pick your brain for a few minutes at lunch? Of course there are times when you need specific help in the moment. But new skill sets take time to develop, so plan accordingly; be intentional and strategic with your requests for help.
  • 3.  Our beliefs are of course the hardest to change. Consider what you know about the power of giving and receiving help at work. Imagine help as a network of information, support and goodwill that operates nonstop between people all the time. You can participate in this exchange when you begin to see that doing so is a sign of strength, professionalism, and your personal commitment to growth and development.
Help given and help received are powerful. It is key to expanding expertise, solving difficult problems, sharing the load and reinforcing our sense of team. Step boldly; offer your help and ask for it when you need it.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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Before and After
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