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Creating a Culture of Helping


How can leaders inspire employees to help their colleagues? Tim Brown, the leader of the design firm IDEO, set out to create a help-friendly organization in order to spur greater creativity.

Collaboration is the key to effective organizations. But how can leaders encourage helping behaviors among employees? A recent Harvard Business Review article by Teresa Amabile, Colin Fisher and Julianna Pillemer examines how the CEO of a cutting-edge design firm, IDEO, did just that. Can the lessons from this company be applied in your organization?

“Few things leaders can do are more important than encouraging helping behavior within their organizations,” the researchers note. “Mutual helping is even more vital in an era of knowledge work.”

The authors make a distinction between simple workload sharing and collaborative help, which they say involves “lending perspective, experience and expertise that improve the quality and execution of ideas.”

“Helpfulness must be actively nurtured,” the authors say, noting that “it does not arise automatically among colleagues” and it “must be inspired, not forced.” In their case study, CEO Tim Brown says: “I believe that the more complex the problem, the more help you need.” At IDEO, “helping is an expected behavior in the culture and everyone is part of the helping network,” he says.

Who are the helpers? Amabile and her fellow researchers say: “It would be easy to assume that to promote helping in your organization, you should focus on increasing your experts’ willingness to offer assistance.” But they conducted a survey of employees at IDEO to find out who the employees saw as their most helpful co-workers. “We expected that expertise in a field would strongly predict popularity as a helper. But we were wrong,” Amabile says. “Many popular helpers had two other attributes going for them . . . Trust and accessibility mattered more than competence.”

Processes and Roles. In survey of one office at IDEO, 89 percent of employees “showed up on at least one other employee’s list of top five helpers,” the articles says. The conclusion: Helping is not a rare skill. IDEO builds “the value of help into formal processes and explicit roles,” the authors add. More specifically, they include helpers when conducting internal design reviews—they designate individuals as design community leaders, and helpers are assigned to projects as advisers.

But being assigned as a helper is not the secret to IDEO’s culture change. Helping is a discretionary behavior. For the helper, “time that might be spent on billable client work is made available to facilitate ad hoc assistance,” the article says. They have to want to do it.

In addition, IDEO encourages serendipitous helping. It encourages staff gatherings, for example, such as frequent all-office lunches. There, help often comes whether it is consciously sought or not, the authors say, adding that “much of the truly useful help occurred more or less organically, as part of everyday life in the organization.” Notably, the researchers found that financial incentives don’t play a prominent role.

Incentives to help. “The incentive to help comes from the simple gratitude it produces and the recognition of its worth,” the researchers say. In fact, they found that being listed more frequently as a helper correlated with higher job satisfaction. “Surveying both givers and receivers of help, we found that the experience of successful helping boosted morale and job satisfaction,” the authors say.

How you can create a helping culture. The researchers offered several tips to leaders of other organizations, based on their two-year research effort at IDEO. “Start by being very clear that helpfulness produces better outcomes than internal competition,” they say. In addition, they offer this advice to leaders:

  • Model that conviction in your own help-giving and help-seeking
  • Make yourself accessible
  • Respect the helper by using the help
  • Consider regularly assigning one or two helpers to project teams
  • Include helping as part of job descriptions

In fact, at IDEO, in the initial orientation for new employees, they are told that the company values include a commitment to make others successful. Wouldn’t you want to work in a place like that?

(Image via pinkypills/

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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