Helping in Organisations – from Harvard Business Review January – February 2014

A study conducted on the successful design company IDEO, found that a culture of helpfulness amongst the employees greatly improved the companies creativity.

“In the top performing companies it is a norm that colleagues support one another’s efforts to do the best work possible.” However, helpfulness is not something that always naturally occurs as some people may be too busy to help or more inclined to compete. Additionally, people may be reluctant to accept help for fear of looking incompetent or they may simply be distrustful of the helpers’ motives. Helping is not a rare skill but one which becomes common in the right environment.

Leadership conviction – when leaders become involved in the helping it gives it more weight. In IDEO status does not create a helping barrier. Leaders both ask for and give help – making it an acceptable norm.

Two sides of the helping coin – it’s necessary to get help from others in the company and would at times be irresponsible not to ask for it from those who are more knowledgeable about certain aspects of a project.

Slack in the organisation – perhaps somewhat counterintuitively; IDEO attributes its efficiency to allowing “slack” in the organisation. By not imposing strict schedules on its employees, they are given the opportunity to engage in helping by enabling them to engage with each other’s work in unplanned ways.

The study at IDEO found that trust and accessibility mattered much more to people when asking others for help than competence. Therefore, if someone is available and is trusted by the employee they are more likely to ask that person for help.

Omissions: IDEO managers take note in an interview when people repeatedly use the word “I” rather than “we” it implies that they are not willing to give credit for help received when involved in team projects.

Adam Grant, in his book “Give and Take” mentions a practise used by a company allowing employees to post “love notes” to people who had helped them which was found to be extremely rewarding to the helpers. This sort of reward gives rise to more altruistic helping than a financial reward which may lead to what the writer terms “competitive helping” where perhaps one is only helping to look good in front of superiors.

How to encourage helping in your organisation?

  • Make it clear that helpfulness is more beneficial than competition. Model this by asking for and giving help yourself.
  • Show appreciation for the help given by actually making use of the help.
  • Give feedback – encourage helpers by acknowledging their help and demonstrate appreciation for their time and effort.
  • Work towards high levels of trust amongst employees – trust is key when it comes to both giving and receiving help
  • Avoid blame or punishment when someone looks for help or gives it.
  • Don’t overload the helpers! Ensure that they still have time to do their own work whilst helping others.