Creating a culture of helpfulness

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Helping is a behavior that an institution needs to inspire rather than force by integrating it into the way of work.

A former participant in Foundations of Christian Leadership told a sad story about the culture at her office. Despite the fact that she was new, she was repeatedly denied help from several colleagues whom she approached about a clerical matter. She was aided eventually by someone who told her that her officemates had refused to help her because she had used the wrong terminology.

What are the impediments to giving and receiving help at work? Why are some organizations better than others at embodying a culture of helping? Why is a culture of helpfulness important to well-run organizations?

As Christian leaders, most of us think of ourselves as nice, helpful people, but when we are in work settings, not-so-helpful dynamics often come into play. If we are feeling uncertain of our status within an organization, we are sometimes less inclined to help someone whom we view as competing for status. Other times our own pride and unwillingness to look weak or incompetent get in the way of our asking for help when we need it. We can also sometimes mistrust colleagues’ judgment or ability to help us get something right.

A recent article in Harvard Business Review looks at one organization’s emphasis on the importance of “collaborative help.” Collaborative help at IDEO lends “perspective, experience, and expertise that improve the quality and execution of ideas.” In fact, CEO Tim Brown says, “I believe that the more complex the problem, the more help you need.” But helping is a behavior that has to be inspired, not forced, according to the authors. IDEO has made helping the norm, through four strategies.

First, the top leaders need to support and model the idea of a helping culture. They need to not only ask regularly for help themselves, but be available and ready to help others within the organization. The leadership needs to expect that work will be done collaboratively.

Second, both the helpers and the “askers” need to be encouraged. Both are important aspects of the process. At IDEO there is no shame in asking for help, and not only the experts are approached. Employees were asked to rank their top five most helpful colleagues. While their number one and their number five had fairly equal expertise, number one was the most trustworthy and accessible, available in person and by email and not too overworked to help.

Third, “help is embedded in the entire design process.” By incorporating ways of asking for help into the brainstorming sessions, the design reviews, and the ways others give support and encouragement, IDEO “builds essential habits of mind.” Helping becomes habit when it is a built-in way of doing business.

Last, a key to collaborative help at IDEO is “allowing slack in the organization.” Incorporating some “give” in employee schedules means that people have some time to help one another, without feeling too stressed about their own responsibilities. Because the organization wants to encourage (not enforce) helping, it avoids overloading people with tasks of their own.

For Christian leaders, collaborative helping doesn’t just ring true theologically, it makes good organizational sense.