Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: Addressing the Social Imbalance in a Helping Relationship

Tyler Reimschisel, Associate Provost for Interprofessional Education, Research and Collaborative Practice

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD

In my “Tips for High-Impact Teamwork” article earlier this month, I began reviewing Edgar Schein’s work on the helping relationship because he points out that “…the essence of teamwork is the development and maintenance of reciprocal helping relationships.” I reviewed several of the uncertainties and ambiguities that the giver and the receiver of help experience at the beginning of the helping relationship. 

Most importantly, I discussed how the relationship is unbalanced between the giver and the receiver in a helping relationship. Schein observes that the giver is inherently at an advantage in the relationship and the receiver is inherently at a disadvantage. In any helping situation, no matter the individuals’ status or level of “power,” the mere act of asking for or offering help can create a hierarchy between the potential giver, who automatically has power and influence by nature of having something to offer the receiver, and the receiver, who needs assistance or help in some way. Schein emphasizes that to maximize the beneficial impact of the helping relationship, this social imbalance in the relationship must be addressed. Therefore, in this article, I would like to discuss how to level-set this imbalance. 

As the helping relationship begins, Schein suggests that the receiver of the potential help is “one down” because they are in a relatively vulnerable position compared to the giver of help. Being in a vulnerable position can be very challenging, especially in U.S. culture. We frequently do not want to admit that we need help, have a problem or are uncertain about how to address a dilemma. To be transparent and forthright about our needs in these situations, we need to trust the person who may give us help. Otherwise, we may withhold information, fail to open up, or even become defensive as a way to avoid facing our own vulnerability. If this differential of power is not ameliorated, it is possible that the help will be compromised or less productive.

Therefore, it is essential that the giver and receiver generate a trusting relationship. One of the best ways to do this is to begin to level-set the imbalance in the helping relationship. Since the helper is one-up, it is incumbent on the helper to intentionally initiate the necessary steps to level-set the relationship. In what may seem counterintuitive, Schein offers that the helper should focus primarily on the communication process itself and not on the content of the request. In other words, the helper should not jump right in and try to fix the problem or offer help. That assistance could be erroneous or misplaced because it is based on incomplete data. More importantly, prematurely offering a solution could be resented by the receiver because the helper does not yet know the full details of the situation or has not yet built a trusting relationship with the receiver themselves. 

So, instead of quickly offering help, the helper should seek more information. Schein points out that when the helper asks for additional information, there can be three beneficial outcomes: 

  1. The receiver’s status is elevated because it recognizes that the receiver has important information; 
  2. It builds the relationship between the helper and receiver as it demonstrates interest and emotional commitment, and 
  3. The helper receives helpful information that can guide the type of help that is provided and how the help is offered. 

This approach lessens the initial imbalance by removing the inherent ignorance of both parties in the situation. It also helps to ensure that the help that is offered is aligned with the reality of the situation. Ultimately, through this approach, the uncertainties and ambiguities for the giver and receiver that I discussed in my previous article are mitigated. 

In summary, at the beginning of the helping relationship, it is important that the giver should ask questions to learn more and to level-set the helping relationship. Because this method of inquiring is the fundamental step in beginning to ameliorate the status differential in a helping relationship, it is crucial that all team members fully understand the inquiry process. In my next article, I will further explore the types of inquiry that can be utilized by the giver of help and compare and contrast when each type is indicated in a helping relationship between team members.


Schein E. Helping: How to Offer, Give and Receive Help. Berrett-Koehler, 2011.