Organisational Culture and the Importance of Helping Others
Before becoming a scholar and educator, Dr Colin M Fisher was a musician. As a professional jazz trumpeter, he performed with an ensemble and toured internationally.
When the musicians improvised, making up melodies in tune and in response to each other, Fisher – who would later become a UCL School of Management faculty member – took note.
“I was always really curious about how people can come together in a group and spontaneously come up with something that no one of us could have thought of,” he said.
To Fisher, this was the magic of jazz music – and he had an inkling that improvisational creativity that happens in well-led groups could be applied to other fields as well.
His curiosity led him to study organisational behaviour: how teams can perform better and how leaders can become more attuned to the dynamics of their employees. Ultimately, Fisher found that collaborating and creating the emotional and physical space to help others improves performance.
However, many modern educational programmes and workplace cultures focus heavily on advancing the individual. Not all workplaces have an endorsed practice of colleagues asking for and receiving help – but building helpfulness into the culture is possible.
What kinds of help exist in a healthy workplace?
Employees should keep in mind that helpfulness is not necessarily tied to expertise. Managers and individual contributors can play different roles as helpers.
Involves diving into a task and typically requires content expertise. “You go in for a fairly long, intense period of time, and you are actually hands-on with the task, helping people to understand and work through problems,” Fisher said.
Examples: designing a new process, building a brand strategy, leading a negotiation, pitching new clients, creating a plan to appease a disgruntled customer, mitigating technology issues
Involves completing tasks that do not require content expertise but free up time for others to engage in deep work. “As a leader, sometimes taking on menial tasks that would not normally be your role as manager on behalf of the team so that they have more time to actually work on the tasks themselves is just as valuable,” Fisher said.
Examples: setting up meeting rooms, ordering lunch or supplies, checking in periodically to answer questions, handling client scheduling, arranging transportation
To learn more about each type of help, see ‘Deep Help in Complex Project Work: Guiding and Path-Clearing Across Difficult Terrain’ in the Academy of Management Journal.
How to create a culture of helpfulness in the workplace
Helpfulness in the workplace does not automatically arise among colleagues, according to Fisher and fellow researchers in the Harvard Business Review article ‘IDEO’s Culture of Helping.’
“Individuals in social groups experience conflicting impulses: As potential helpers, they may also be inclined to compete. As potential help seekers, they may also take pride in going it alone or be distrustful of those whose assistance they could use,” wrote the researchers.
Organisation leaders must intentionally create a workplace culture in which help is asked for and offered without shame or judgement. To encourage helping behaviours, managers should support open, honest dialogue with employees while organisations create space and build motivation for colleagues to support each other.
Strategies for building a helpful work culture as a manager
ENSURE YOU HAVE AN OPEN DIALOGUE WITH DIRECT REPORTS.
Can the people you manage tell you when they are overwhelmed? To truly offer support, managers need to understand their employees’ workloads, assignments and well-being in the workplace.
“Great helpers have this very open dialogue with the people who they are positioned to help,” said Fisher. Encouraging direct reports to speak honestly about their experiences is a crucial starting point for creating a culture in which people can seek support when needed.
CHECK IN OFTEN, ESPECIALLY WITH REMOTE EMPLOYEES.
Fisher says that great leaders frequently check in with team members. “They ask more often, and they ask more sincerely,” he said.
Start with simple questions: How are things going? What do you need?
CREATE A PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORK ENVIRONMENT.
In healthy and ethical workplaces, people can raise concerns with the confidence that they will not be rejected, embarrassed or punished for speaking up, according to a 2019 article on employee well-being from the Institute of Business Ethics. Having an open dialogue and frequent check-ins is only helpful if employees also feel safe from ridicule and retribution.
Strategies for organisations to create and sustain a helpful organisational culture
ESTABLISH HELPFULNESS AS A KEY ORGANISATIONAL VALUE.
Whenever possible, emphasise helpfulness as part of the organisation’s ethos, including in values and mission statements. Furthermore, take steps to help employees feel personally connected to and responsible for these values.
“[I]t is not enough to state this in the mission statement, brand story or in marketing and promotional materials,” according to Forbes’ advice for creating a positive work culture. For example, include helping behaviours in every job description.
DIFFUSE HELP THROUGHOUT THE ORGANISATION.
Some people are naturally more approachable for help; for them, helping behaviours will come more easily. But leaders should take care to prevent these employees from being inundated with requests that do not align with their job criteria or personal goals. Encourage managers to discuss helpfulness in performance reviews and goal-setting sessions. Employees who help less should work on helping as a skill and track it accordingly; those who help more may want to practise stepping back.
CREATE ORGANIC OPPORTUNITIES FOR COLLEAGUES TO KNOW AND SUPPORT EACH OTHER.
Employees at IDEO, the organisation Fisher and his colleagues studied, had many informal interactions, such as regular all-office lunches. These gatherings actually seemed to be places where support and insights were shared.
“In fact, one of our most interesting findings at IDEO was that much of the truly useful help occurred more or less organically, as part of everyday life in the organisation,” wrote the authors. In addition to holding official events, consider allowing employees time and space to plan their own gatherings where help can naturally occur.
REVISIT THE ORGANISATION’S STRUCTURE AND JOB DESCRIPTIONS.
Leaders should regularly ask if they have the right roles and responsibilities allocated within the organisation. If one person is regularly overwhelmed with helping requests, “that probably means there’s somebody missing who’s supposed to be doing that [task] or that the job descriptions are not very well formulated,” said Fisher.
CREATE SPACE IN THE SYSTEM FOR HELPING.
An organisation that wants helping to occur has to avoid overloading employees with assignments.
“Notice the implication: Time that might be spent on billable client work is made available to facilitate ad hoc assistance,” Fisher and fellow researchers concluded in the Harvard Business Review article. This kind of institutional commitment reinforces to employees that helping matters to the organisation.
How to ask for help without shame
Seeking help in the workplace can feel uncomfortable. In a sense, asking is an admission that a person cannot do the task on their own. Fisher said that employees may be especially hesitant to ask for help with larger projects.
“People tend not to ask for really big kinds of help because that’s threatening to themselves, and [they think] that says something about your self-esteem, your self-worth, and other people can see it,” Fisher said.
People tend to believe an individualistic story about work – in Fisher’s words, a story of one person navigating the social world on their own.
“The reality is that that’s just not how people get anything done. That’s not how organisations work,” Fisher said.
Helping others is a part of healthy organisations. Read more about learning how to ask:
RECOGNISE AND COUNTER THE FALSE NARRATIVE OF INDIVIDUALISM.
Some of Fisher’s doctoral students enter with the notion that writing a dissertation means shutting oneself in a room to write for several months then emerging with the document finalised.
“But that’s not how people write papers,” he said. “You write something. Somebody reads it, and they tell you what they thought. Then maybe they give you some tips on revising it.”
KEEP IN MIND THAT PEOPLE ARE GENERALLY ALTRUISTIC.
People generally underestimate how likely someone is to say yes to a helping request, said Fisher, citing research from Francis J. Flynn and Vanessa K. Bohns.
“Everyone thinks everyone else is going to be much more selfish than they are, and then in practice, they’re not,” said Fisher.
KNOW THAT COLLABORATION OFTEN PRODUCES THE BEST WORK.
“There aren’t a lot of lone geniuses out there who do work purely on their own,” said Fisher. Excellent scholarship, research and business outcomes almost always result from collaboration to some extent.
“This myth that somebody goes off and does work by themselves and then comes out with it is just that – a myth,” he said.
REMEMBER THAT PEOPLE OFTEN ENJOY HELPING OTHERS.
Asking a colleague for assistance can deepen your relationship with them.
“You’re showing somebody that you can rely on them, that you trust them enough to be vulnerable to them,” Fisher said.
How to decline a helping request
Supporting fellow colleagues is part of creating and sustaining a positive workplace culture. These kinds of workplaces ultimately tend to produce better outcomes.
However, time and resources may be limited. How can employees discern which requests to accept and which to decline? Before responding, consider the group’s perception of you as a colleague.
“The calculation you have to make is really about what you think your image [in the workplace] already is,” said Fisher.
Do you typically decline such requests in favour of focusing only on your own work?
“If people see you as somebody who is not a team player, who is not cooperative, and then you say no to a helping request, that can have pretty negative consequences for you within that organisation or group,” said Fisher.
However, if you are generally seen as helpful and this request is the exception, then you can often politely decline without negative consequences for either you or the team.
“People tend to be very understanding of that from people they see as generous,” said Fisher.
Try saying: “I’m very overwhelmed right now. I’d love to help, but I really don’t have time.” Consider also recommending another colleague for the job.
Also, maintain perspective.
“Usually, people overestimate the consequences of saying no to a helping request because people who are asking expect to receive [a negative response] more often than they actually do,” said Fisher. “So, there’s probably less of a consequence than you think.”
Citation for this content: The UCL Online MBA.