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 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Corporate Climate of Mutual Help

S+B: Are most managers capable of this?
Probably not. They would need a culture that rewards them for raising concerns, and in most organizations the norms are to punish it. It’s the very nature of authority to say, “Don’t be a squeaky wheel. You made your point, but we’re going to go ahead anyway. I don’t want to hear any more.”

So let’s say you want a company to be genuinely safe. It’s not enough to have an empowering process. The supervisors, middle managers, and senior executives all have to actively work to create behaviors that encourage a climate of safety. Alpha, for example, now has a “time-out program.” An employee is obligated, if he or she sees something unsafe, to pull out and display a time-out card located near each station. That stops the job until somebody with expertise comes in and looks it over.

But some employees say, “If I pull the card too often, my supervisor will give me lousier jobs.” To make a company genuinely safe, behavior needs to change at all levels. The entire hierarchy has to feel good about the card being pulled, instead of regarding it as a nuisance triggered by a few employees.

Meanwhile — and this is important — work in many companies is getting more complex, and subordinates have more relative power by virtue of their specialized expertise. If they choose to not tell the boss about problems, the company will never know that there’s an issue until it’s too late. The answer is to create a climate in which superiors and subordinates have a mutual helping relationship.

S+B: In your book Helping, you talk about learning to give and receive assistance more effectively. Why does this matter?
It’s pivotal to the future of organizations. The types of teams that we need in organizations today are like cardiac surgical units. The surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the perfusionist, and the nurse are in immediate, here-and-now interdependence. In that kind of team, subordinates have to help superiors regularly; everyone has to act as if they all have a stake in the outcome.

In most team cultures, bosses tend to act as authority figures who are there only to help subordinates, not to listen to and be helped by others. So what happens, for example, if a nurse sees a doctor picking up the wrong instrument? You might expect her to say, “Stop, doctor” and offer help and advice. But in many organizational cultures, the nurse won’t say anything. She’s going to take a chance on the operation failing, because she once tried to help a doctor that way and got blasted.

Better teamwork requires perpetual mutual helping, within and across hierarchical boundaries. I don’t see how we’re going to get there unless we create cultural “islands” — situations in which people can go outside the organization’s norms and practices and explicitly create this mutual helping relationship. In the cardiac unit, this means the surgeon saying to the nurse, “First of all, let’s get on a first-name basis, and then I’m going to try very hard to listen to you.” The people with the most authority and established knowledge must make the others feel psychologically safe, so that when they’re back in the heat of operations, everyone will speak up freely when something is wrong. The surgeon must know what questions to ask in order to be more helpful. In any helping situation, “humble inquiry” is a key intervention to equilibrate the relationship between the vulnerable person asking for help and the powerful helper.

All this will demand that companies train their teams in the helping process. Most team training that I’ve seen is focused on making people feel good about one another. But what I’m talking about is something much more profound and essential: knowing how to work with one another as equal partners in an operational setting.

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