Teamwork as Perpetual Reciprocal Helping

Teamwork and team building are increasingly seen as crucial to organizational performance, whether we are talking about a business, an athletic competition, a family, or just two workers coordinating their efforts. More books are written about team building than any other aspect of organization development. Yet it is still not entirely clear what the essence of teamwork is. One aspect is clearly that every member must perform some role that is relevant to what the group is trying to do.

Sustained team performance clearly involves trust that the others will continue to perform their roles over time. Nothing hurts a team more than a member letting down the team by suddenly not showing up or not performing. And social economics come into play as well. As a member of a group, you must feel that what you give is fairly compensated in terms of what you get. Not every member will have the same status, but all members must have some status commensurate with their contributions.

[A good] example is a surgical team performing a new, less invasive open-heart procedure in which the surgeon, the anesthetist, and the other members of the team have to be in constant communication with each other and have to totally trust each other’s communication.

Amy Edmondson (2001) studied sixteen such surgical teams and found that seven of them were effective and continued to use the procedure, while nine were not able to develop comfort and abandoned its use. What was the difference? The teams that succeeded were launched by surgeons who acknowledged from the outset that they needed help and agreed to joint training with the other members of the team. This allowed them to work out their roles and develop equitable relationships. Key to this was the recognition and public acknowledgment by the surgeons that they really needed the help, which gave a higher status to the other members, thereby motivating them to contribute more to the process. As one surgeon put it, “The ability of the surgeon to allow himself to become a partner, not a dictator, is critical. For example, you really do have to change what you’re doing based on a suggestion from someone else on the team . . . . You still need someone in charge, but it is so different.”

How Is Teamwork Achieved?

I am defining teamwork as a state of multiple reciprocal helping relationships including all the members of the group that have to work together. Building a team therefore is not just creating one client/helper relationship, but simultaneously building one among all the members. The sensitive team leader is aware that in any new group all new members must work out their relationships with each other and with the formal authority. Time and resources must be devoted to allowing these relationships to be built.  Before members can become helpful to each other, the leader must help them deal with four fundamental psychological issues. These must be resolved before their identities in the group can be established and they become comfortable with their roles. As in any helping situation, the leader must function initially as a process consultant and create the conditions for members to gain comfort around these issues:

1.       Who am I to be? What is my role in this group?

2.       How much control/influence will I have in this group?

3.       Will my goals/needs be met in this group?

4.       What will be the level of intimacy in this group?

The first question reflects the social reality that we are all capable of being many different things in the various life situations we face. We have a repertory of roles that we draw on when we enter any new situation, and that requires us to make some immediate choices, which creates some tension and anxiety until we know what our roles are. In that regard, the surgeons of the successful groups created roles that highlighted the interdependency of the team members and through the joint team training, communicated that each member was integral to the process. They selected team members on the basis of the specific skills that would be needed and their ability to work in a team, i.e. to be helpful rather than self-seeking. The surgeons of the groups that did not succeed took on roles that emphasized their own indispensability, which made the rest of the team just hired hands who could be replaced.

The second question highlights that as humans we always want some degree of influence, but not necessarily the same amount as everyone else in the group. In developing a team, it is therefore critical to provide some time during which members can test the water—communicating how much influence they need to have and calibrating that against the needs of the others. The members come to learn that they have different skills and that some of them are more critical to group performance than others, but that everyone had some degree of influence on the outcome. That became obvious during the joint training in the successful surgical teams.

The third question has to do with why we enter groups in the first place. What are our needs and goals and will they be met once we discover what the group is all about? The successful group of surgeons evidently explored this issue before they invited team members into the group. If candidates did not show real interest in becoming a member of the team—because their needs and goals did not mesh with this kind of surgical process—they would not have been invited to begin with.

Finally, the fourth question deals with how personally and emotionally involved the member of the group will be. Is it just a matter of doing one’s job, or does one have to let one’s hair down by sharing personal goals and information, doing lots of informal stuff with the other members, etc.? We all have our role limits, and when we enter a new group, we have to use those limits to see whether the group will demand too much or maybe not enough from us. In order to do this, we again need some period of training or team building to allow for the possibility that if there is a real mismatch, we can still get out of the situation before the group has to perform.

The leader developing the team must be aware that until members feel comfortable around the four questions, they will be preoccupied and anxious, and will therefore not give full attention to the actual work that is to be performed. If the job is important and complicated, it is essential that the group have enough time for every member to reach a comfort level that will allow full concentration. The effective team cannot tolerate members who are preoccupied with who they are, how much influence they have, whether their needs will be met, and whether or not the group is too formal or informal.

To summarize, an effective team can be characterized as having members who know their roles and who feel comfortable in those roles because they feel that what they contribute, in the way of performance, and what they get back, in the way of formal and informal rewards, is equitable. In that sense, they are helping each other and the team as a whole. Everyone is a client and everyone is a helper, and because they have built the relationships together everyone can perform as an expert or doctor, as the task performance requires, or as a process consultant, if something unexpected happens that requires some inquiry and improvisation. When the team is functioning well, everyone stays in role even though some members may be contributing far more than others. Groups can carry low contributing members if everyone understands and agrees on their roles. What destroys a team is either that the roles are unclear from the beginning or members have deviated from agreed-upon roles. Such deviation can either be the withholding of help, as when someone does not show up or does not do what is needed, or, alternatively, it can be too much help, as when one intrudes into another’s area with unwanted suggestions or actions.

Feedback as an Essential Helping Process

Feedback, by definition, is information that helps one reach goals by showing that the current progress is either on or off target. If it is off target, that feedback automatically triggers corrective action, as when your thermostat starts the heating or air conditioning if the room is too hot or too cold according to your settings. Feedback is essential to the helping process when the client asks how to remain on track. In this sense, we are all seeking and using feedback throughout every day of our lives to ensure that what we intend comes to pass. But the information we seek, especially when we explicitly ask for help, is only useful if it is relevant to our target. The helper must be sure what the target is that the client is aiming for, and, therefore, must engage in humble inquiry before offering feedback.

In the group context, getting useful feedback is especially relevant because without it, the group can neither correct off-target behavior nor learn how to be more effective in reaching the target. Identifying progress, reviewing it, and starting conversations among the members that encourage useful feedback—these are all essential to the helping process that creates and sustains teamwork.

Team members have to learn how to analyze and critique their own and each other’s task performance without threatening each other’s face or humiliating each other. That means that subordinates have to learn how to tell potentially negative things to their superiors, and superiors have to learn how to not punish their subordinates for telling the truth if that truth is inconvenient. That, in turn, requires the ability to give and receive feedback in a constructive manner.

In order for this kind of communication to occur safely, there needs to be a time and place defined as “off-line,’ which permits the group to suspend the usual norms of face and create an atmosphere allowing things to be said that would ordinarily be threatening. The example of Japanese managers drinking with their boss so that things can be said while drunk is one way of doing this. In the Western context, a more typical example would be to structure the after-action review as an event in which the leaders announce that the norms of rank and status are to be minimized, thus setting a more informal tone.

In my consultation with organizational groups or working with fellow academics designing learning experiences, I would often propose a process review, during which team members spoke openly and gave constructive feedback with minimum concern for formal rank or status. This did not occur automatically. We had to learn how to give feedback to each other in a way that was helpful without risking a loss of face. How is this done?

First of all, be helpful, feedback must conform to some basic rules of interaction defined in this book as essential to the helping relationship. One angry colleague saying to another, “LET ME GIVE YOU SOME FEEDBACK!” is clearly doing something other than helping. Even the manager telling his subordinate as part of the annual review and salary discussion, “Here are your weaknesses to be worked on, and here are the reasons why I cannot give you an increase this year…,” is probably not being helpful. What is wrong?

Feedback is generally not helpful if it is not asked for. As pointed out in previous chapters, the helper must first identify what problem the client is trying to solve before it becomes possible to provide help. When a colleague, boss, friend, or spouse unilaterally decides to give advice or feedback, it is likely that not only will the message be misunderstood, but the other person will be offended and insulted. I have seen this over and over again in performance appraisals where the boss says something like “You need to be more assertive in meetings,” and the subordinate has no idea to what the boss is actually referring. That leads to a second principle. Feedback not only needs to be solicited, but it needs to be specific and concrete.

Most performance appraisal systems deal with abstract traits like initiative, ambition, communication skills, social skills, and analytical skills, which mean absolutely nothing independent of concrete behavioral examples. Current efforts to define competencies suffer from the same problem of being too abstract. If feedback is to be helpful, it must occur in the context of a review of action, something the group has done together where specific behavior can be referred to and analyzed. In the surgical team review, if a surgeon says, “I would like to see more initiative from the nurse,” the nurse may have no idea what that means. However, the meaning is clear in this observation: “When you saw me struggling with ___, it would have been helpful if you handed me ___.’ Instead of the nurse saying to the surgeon, “I wish you would communicate more,” more constructive feedback would be “Why did you not tell me that you wanted me to do ___ when ____?” By referring to specific events that both parties can remember, there is at least a chance of meaningful learning, but note how crucial it is to redefine the norms of deference and demeanor for those things to be said at all and to be heard as constructive instead of punishing.

If we continue these two points, the potential for effective feedback would be even higher if in the after-action review the leader asked members to start with questions about their own performance in order to solicit feedback. The nurse might ask, “Were you satisfied with the way I was handing out the instruments?” or “Is there something I could have done that would have facilitated things more?” By giving the initiative to those seeking feedback, there is a greater likelihood that they can hear it because it relates to something they want help with. It turns the situation explicitly into a helping relationship around common team goals.

Both the surgeon and the nurse share the common goal of making the operation more successful, effective, timely, safe, or whatever they agree on. Then the analysis, the questions, and the feedback fit into a shared context. For example, it would be pointless for the surgeon to say, “You should have done that faster,” unless speed was a shared goal.

Finally, a fourth point is that feedback works best if it is descriptive rather than evaluative. The statement, “You should have been more aggressive when John challenged you at that meeting” is a judgment. What might be more helpful is “When I saw John challenge you at the meeting, I noticed that you became silent…” That opens the door to the client to explain or absorb the implication. It also focuses on what the giver of feedback observed, which might or might not agree with what others observed. By making a judgment on what you should have done, the helper is taking on the expert or doctor role. By making a descriptive observation, the helper stays in the inquiring process consultant role, which allows elaboration and explanation on the client’s part.

To summarize thus far, for team members to learn how to become helpers requires situations in which social norms can be temporarily suspended so that they can communicate with each other openly. Such feedback works best if it is solicited rather than imposed, if it is concrete and specific, if it fits into a shared goal context, and if it is descriptive rather than evaluative. Team members who share this kind of communication will develop the mutual helping relationships that will enable them to function smoothly under task pressure.

Though the analysis of feedback requirements was made here in the context of teamwork, the same principles apply to the one-on-one situation between friends, spouses, and formal helper/client relationships. When I think of helping conversations that have gone wrong, in almost every case I discover that what I said was either unsolicited, too general, judgmental, or related to some goal of mine rather than to what the other person was trying to do.


Edgar H. Schein is a Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is author of Process Consultation Revisited, Organizational Culture, and Leadership and Humble Inquiry. among many others.

Reprinted with permission from the book, Helping, by Edgar Schein, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011

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