Helping our colleagues – the single biggest predictor of team success

People often ponder the question – ‘What do we need to do to be a high performing team’? Typical responses cover themes like sharing a common compelling purpose and vision, clarity about roles and responsibilities, high levels of trust and empathy, a culture of learning, openness and honesty, high standards of excellence and accountability, strong, flexible and respected leadership etc etc.

A team of Harvard psychologists explored this same question following the events of 9/11, and discovered something very interesting. The strongest predictor of group effectiveness was the amount of help they gave to each other. The highest performing teams invested time and energy in coaching, teaching, and consulting with colleagues. These actions helped colleagues to question their assumptions, fill in gaps in knowledge, gain access to different perspectives and recognise patterns in seemingly disconnected threads of information.


Further research in this area suggests helping behaviour facilitates organisational effectiveness by:

  • enabling employees to solve problems and get work done faster
  • enhancing team cohesion and coordination
  • ensuring that expertise is transferred from experienced to new employees
  • reducing variability in performance when some members are overloaded or distracted
  • establishing an environment in which customers and suppliers feel that their needs are the organisation’s top priority

And yet – many organisations do not enjoy these benefits. Cultures that are ‘taker cultures’ – where the norm is to get as much from others while contributing less in return, rarely see these results. On the other hand, ‘giver cultures’ – where colleagues help each other, share knowledge, offer mentoring and make connections without expecting anything in return do – reap the benefits. Most organisations fit in the middle – ‘matcher cultures’ – where I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine!


What sort of person are you – a giver, a matcher or a taker? And what sort of team do you work in – one that gives, one that takes or one that matches?


If you want to change the culture to being a ‘giver culture’ consider these ideas suggested in the article:

  1. Encourage people to ask for help – make it ok to ask for help
  2. To limit interruptions helping might cause – set ‘quiet time’ windows – this helps people make progress in their work, then feel more ‘free’ to help others
  3. Consider setting up ‘helper’ roles to help co-ordinate helping-seeking and giving
  4. Reward the impact on others from helping behaviour not just individual results
  5. Call out good examples of helping behaviour
  6. Lead by example



Link to McKinsey article.