On Support, Teamwork, and Helping in Difficult Times

I wrote this essay years ago, but have been thinking about the issue alot during these difficult times.  As we face this coronavirus crisis, some people are jumping in, working on teams, and really helping and supporting one another.  It’s worth it then to think about helping and supporting, and why it is so essential.  So I offer this essay which I wrote in different times but which I think is very apt for today.

Why We Offer Help and Support

Ever since I read Edgar Schein’s short book Helping, I have been very attracted to the concept of helping as a central component – even definition – of teamwork.   In the book, Schein argues that,  “We do not typically think of an effective team as being a group of people who really know how to help each other in the performance of a task, yet that is precisely what good teamwork is –successful reciprocal help.”

Somehow this concept of helping seems to elude most of us.  Just as it too often eluded me.  Think of the times a nurse will ask a doctor to come to the bedside and be blown off.  Or a team mate will make a suggestion or state a concern only to find that no one is listening or that they are dismissed or even dissed.  Think of someone working in an office, who notices something and tries to tell a boss, a co-worker that something might be wrong, needed, ignored.  Think of a someone who asks for the support of a colleague and doesn’t get it.

It happens every day.  Someone asks for help and is ignored or even humiliated or abused for their trouble.  People who work with one another are constantly asking for help from those with whom they work — help me fix this, figure out what to do about this, strategize about this, notice this, feel comfortable about doing this, show up for this. (In this era of Coronavirus, we see this day in and day out with those in the highest echelons of power.  But more on that in another post.)

Studies on negotiation and conflict resolution tell us that when you ask for help – straight out as in “can you help me?” –it’s hard for people to refuse. So why do so many people fail to get the help they need from people who are supposedly their teammates?

One of the reasons may be that those of us who need help are reluctant to ask for it.  Many of us have been taught that asking for help is a sign of weakness.  Sometimes people couch their request for help as a challenge or demand.  This may stem from the fact that they are so overwhelmed because they need help that they articulate their request in the wrong words or with the wrong tone of voice. Or perhaps the request for help is delivered in the kind of hint /hope style that can invite rejection rather than responsiveness.

Sometimes the problem isn’t on the asking end, but the receiving end.  The person who is being asked for help, is more concerned with their status and authority – their own feelings or needs. — than their duty to help. The complexities here are endless but the issue remains the same.  Help is being requested and we fail to recognize that the duty of the team member is to provide it.

We are all guilty of failures to help.  Me included.  I realized several years ago while working with my teammate Patrick Mendenhall,  the pilot with whom I co-authored Beyond the Checklist: What Else Health Care Can Learn from Aviation Teamwork and Safety.   This realization came as quite a shock because I always figured I was a really helpful person.  A helpful mom, wife, friend, team mate, colleague….

Patrick and I had been working together for almost six years and had developed, what we both consider to be,  great team practices.  This was not easy since Patrick and I could not be more different.  Patrick is an engineer, a pilot, a left -brain guy who is very well organized, has tons of lists, and likes to rehearse a lecture, writing out a new PowerPoint for each presentation we do, and going over the timing of our different contributions and interventions.  He likes a script and he likes to go over it.

I like to be spontaneous and rarely make lists. Of course, I prepare when I give a lecture. I want to know who’s going to say what and when, but if we’ve done it many times, to different audiences, I figure we don’t need to go over,what I often consider to be the same ground, every time we do our act together.  So, in the past, until my ah ha moment that is, I secretly felt a little irritated and impatient when Patrick would sugest that we spend a half hour before the event going over the script.  “Do we really, really need to do this,” I would think, but not say. I would acquiesce, but without enthusiasm, and go through the motions.  I perceived all this to be about his needs not mine.  And those needs were, I hate to admit this, a bit of an inconvenience.

But at one point, as we rehearsed a talk we were going to present, it finally occurred to me: the issue isn’t Patrick.  Needing to prepare wasn’t his problem, it was our problem.  Patrick was asking for help – help getting the rhythm down, managing the pacing, feeling comfortable with the material before getting up and doing a presentation.  I might not have any need to do this, but my responsibility as a team member (not to mention friend and colleague) was to provide the help and support – not grudgingly – but willingly.  We are a team and present together.  If he doesn’t feel comfortable, if he needs something then I have to provide it because that’s what it means to be on a team. Even if we weren’t presenting together, and he was doing it alone, he was representing our work to the public.  It may not seem important or relevant to me . But that perception, not a teammate’s need — is what is totally irrelevant since the issue is the work of the team and how it is best accomplished.  Obviously there are limits to this.  If a teammate wants to go over things for hours and hours.  If there is a crisis and you have to act.  But this wasn’t the issue here and it often isn’t the issue in other instances where people are asking for help or support and not getting it.

So what is the take home message here?  You are on a team because you can’t get the job done yourself.  Helping and supporting someone who needs help and support is, in fact, the very essence of teamwork.  So  if you are on a team, you need to mobilize the kind of team intelligence that is essential if a team is to function well.  This means asking directly for help when you need it, and responding directly with help when someone requests it.

So I have learned my lesson.  At least for now.  Until I have to remind myself the next time and the next.





  • Bob Thibodeau

    Asking for help is also a path to friendships that bud from the interactions, the natural stand off behavior based on observed body language moves to a new level of comfort and sometimes to lifelong connections!

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