The promise and perils of helping

Dear colleagues,

You give and receive help all the time. Did you know there are principles for doing it well?

Giving and receiving help is an everyday occurrence. Someone asks you how to find a room in building 19 and you give directions. Tutors try to help students learn. Counter staff respond to student queries.

Sometimes help is offered without a request for it. Occasionally I see someone in building 19 looking lost and ask whether they need assistance. Teachers are constantly making suggestions about what they think students need to know.

This seems obvious enough. But sometimes helping interactions become unstuck: we may give advice that is unintentionally misleading or causes resentment. Imagine going to a doctor who jumps to a conclusion about what's wrong before hearing a full account of symptoms. Help offered without sensitivity can raise hackles.

Edgar Schein is an emeritus professor at the MIT School of Management. He has a lot of experience in management consulting, a particularly complicated process of attempting to help. In his book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, he draws on his management background plus a lot of everyday experiences, for example giving directions, working in teams, and seeing how hospital workers dealt with his wife, who died of cancer.

Schein offers some important general insights about helping. He classifies the roles helpers can take into three types: expert, doctor and process consultant. The expert helper role involves giving advice based on superior knowledge. The doctor helper role involves dispensing advice based on a diagnosis. The process consultant role involves establishing a relationship between the helper and the client - the person helped - in order to determine needs.

In any given interaction, a helper may adopt one or more of these roles. Consider for example a teacher responding to a student's request for assistance with an assignment. In the expert role, the teacher restates the instructions in the subject outline and finishes the interaction. In the doctor role, the teacher probes to find out what the student doesn't understand about the assignment and offers a recommendation. In the process consultant role, the teacher tries to build a trusting relationship so that the student will be able to reveal the real problem - which could be anything from a personal crisis to concern about another student's behaviour.

Asking for help puts a person in a dependent situation. As Schein puts it, the person requesting assistance is "one down" and the helper is "one up". The emotions involved in seeking help - for example shame at one's inadequacy - can limit communication and negate the value of recommendations.

One of Schein's refrains is the need to adopt the process consultant role more often. The expert and doctor roles are fine if certain conditions are satisfied, but sometimes they fail because the helper hasn't found out what the actual problem is, or whether their recommendation will be well received.

Schein uses this basic insight to tackle more complicated processes. He analyses teamwork as a process of mutual helping that is facilitated by the process consultant role and sensitivity to team members' needs. He analyses the challenging task of being a management consultant when the main problem with the organisation is the relationship between the top manager - the person who called in the consultant - and the unit the top manager believes needs assistance.

Giving help is one challenge; another is accepting help, in other words learning from others. Those who adopt the expert or doctor roles are often resistant to accepting help. Schein argues that leaders need to learn how to accept help.

Schein's book Helping is well set out and well written, with plenty of examples. Surprisingly for a university professor, he says little about teaching, giving emphasis to organisational dynamics. He does not comment on whether his analysis applies outside of the US and similar societies; the dynamics of helping no doubt depend on the sociocultural context.

Helping is something so ordinary and routine that most people don't give it a lot of thought. The value of Schein's analysis is to highlight the elements of this everyday activity and show how, with thought and care, we might do things differently and possibly better.

19 August 2009

I thank Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Rob Carr, Kerry Dunne, Ruchira Ganguly-Scrase, Michael Matteson, Ian Miles, Colin Salter, Clara Triastuti and Andrew Whelan for valuable comments on a draft.


Edgar H Schein, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 2009)

"Helping is a common yet complex process. It is an attitude, a set of behaviors, a skill, and an essential component of social life. It is the core of what we think of as teamwork and is an essential ingredient of organizational effectiveness. It is one of the most important things that leaders do and it is at the heart of change processes. Yet it often goes wrong. As helpers we often feel well-meaning help is refused or ignored. As clients we often feel we do not get the help we need, we get the wrong king of help, we feel overhelped, or, worst of all, we discover too late that we were not aware of some of the best help we got and then feel guilty." (p. 144)

"After the help has been asked for ... the potential helper [has] the possibility of taking advantage of the situation - either selling something or in other ways exploiting the situation rather than providing help. One may realize that one cannot really help but be seduced into using the power granted for personal gain. It is psychologically hard to give up such granted power, to say with humility, 'I don't know if I can help or not' or 'I cannot really help you'." (p. 34)

"The important lesson here is that teams almost always work better when the higher status person in the group exhibits some humility by active listening; this acknowledges that the others are crucial to good outcomes and creates psychological space for them to develop identities and roles in the group that feel equitable and fair." (p. 108)

"What makes leadership so complex is that it involves both learning to accept help, by becoming genuinely involved in the culture of the group, and how to give help to the group and to individual subordinates as areas of improvement are identified. Helpful leaders must take into account all of the issues of status equilibration and role negotiation. Walking in as the boss and expert will not work." (p. 132)

Principles of helping

1. Effective help occurs when both giver and receiver are ready.

2. Effective help occurs when the helping relationship is perceived to be equitable.

3. Effective help occurs when the helper is in the proper helping role [expert, doctor or process consultant].

4. Everything you say or do is an intervention that determines the future of the relationship.

5. Effective help starts with pure inquiry.

6. It is the client who owns the problem.

7. You never have all the answers.

(pp. 147-156)


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