Tips for High-Impact Teamwork: The Helping Relationship

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

by Tyler Reimschisel, MD

What is a team? It seems like a simple question, yet the definitions for “teamness” have interesting distinctions. Edward Schein, an expert in organizational culture, humble inquiry, and group consultation, offers what I think is one of the most thought-provoking descriptions of a team. Given his seminal work on providing and receiving help, he defines an effective team as:

…one in which each member helps the others by performing his or her role appropriately so that equity is felt by all and mutual trust remains high even when performance pressures are great. In other words, the essence of teamwork is the development and maintenance of reciprocal helping relationships among all the members (Schein, 2011).

If we accept the proposition that the essence of teamwork is “reciprocal helping relationships,” then it is crucial for those of us who want to be in high-impact teams to understand fully the nuances of what it means for team members to help one another. Beginning with today’s article, I would like to explore the practice of helping one another, especially as it relates to teams. 

In Helping, Schein points out that almost all forms of help are characterized by two distinct features: unbalanced power between the giver and the receiver of the help, and mutual ignorance among both the giver and the receiver. This is true for simple requests—such as asking for directions—to more complex situations, such as receiving feedback as a student or reaching out to a colleague for advice on a challenging work situation. 

Regardless of the complexity of the help that is sought or offered, an imbalance develops as soon as the help is requested or offered. The potential receiver of the help is in a relatively vulnerable position, and the potential giver of the help has a higher, one-upmanship status. The degree of imbalance in position or power is highly contextualized and varies based on national and organizational cultures, the intersectionalities of the giver and receiver and the team’s characteristics. The extent to which the helper mitigates this imbalance can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the help that is provided.

In addition to the unbalanced relationship, both the giver and receiver of the help enter into the helping relationship with a lot of uncertainties and ambiguities. Schein points out five things that the recipient of the help does not know at the beginning of the relationship: 

  1. Does the helper have the requisite knowledge, skills, and/or attitude and motivation to help? It is important to confirm as early in the helping relationship as possible that the potential helper is equipped to help.
  2. What are the potential consequences of asking for help from this person at this time? The giver may require more investment of time, attention, engagement, support or monetary cost than the receiver may have or want to extend. 
  3. Will I be able to implement what the helper suggests? The receiver does not know if they will have the requisite knowledge or skills to implement the help that was offered. They also may not be in the right frame of mind or have the appropriate attitude to carry out the recommended help. 
  4. Can the receiver trust that the helper will not leverage the situation to their own advantage? The receiver does not want to enter into a helping relationship only to find out later that the giver is trying to sell something or promote themselves. 
  5. What will be the costs of accepting the help (financial, emotional, social, political, etc.)?  This seems very similar to the previous question. The receiver does not want the giver to use the help that was provided as a way to solicit some type of quid pro quo obligation or repayment.

On the other hand, the helper also faces ambiguities and uncertainties at the beginning of the helping relationship:

  1. Will the receiver understand the questions being asked and the advice or recommendations being offered? It is important for the helper to use terms and language the receiver understands or clarify what the terms and other language mean. 
  2. Will the receiver have the knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes and motivation to follow through on the recommendations? At the beginning of the relationship, the receiver does not know what the receiver will need to know or do, so it is certainly not possible to know whether the receiver will have the requested knowledge and/or skills to carry out the giver’s suggestions or advice. Furthermore, the help may require an attitude or mindset that the receiver does not yet have. 
  3. What is the receiver’s real motivation for seeking help? It is important to keep in mind that the receiver may not ask their real question or even know what their underlying needs are when they initially engage the giver for assistance.
  4. What are the contextual factors that are influencing the request for help and how are they influencing the request? The giver will likely need to know more about the receiver’s relationships and other individuals they work with, the learning or working environment and culture, and/or other factors that could influence whether the help that is recommended can be implemented. 
  5. How do the receiver’s experiences shape their expectations? The giver will frequently need to know more about the receiver’s background knowledge and experience, their predispositions, areas of concern or anxiety, etc. 

Like the power differential between the giver and the receiver, the effectiveness of the help offered can be significantly influenced by how well these uncertainties are clarified. In my next Tips for High-Impact Teamwork article, I will distill Schein’s insights on how the initial imbalances and ambiguities in a helping relationship can be addressed most productively, especially by the person who is going to be offering the help or assistance. 


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