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Helping Relationships: How Leaders Can Support Their Teams With a Collaborative Approach

Modern leaders engage in helping relationships

Modern leaders engage in helping relationships with the people they supervise. How they help can vary based on the situation. Tackling today’s adaptive challenges requires a collaborative form of helping that supports team members to think for themselves rather than give advice or solve problems for them. In this piece I review a consulting framework for three forms of helping, apply the framework to organizational leadership, and recommend that modern leaders engage in Collaborative Partnerships to support people to do their best work and strengthen organizational resilience.

What is a helping relationship?

Consulting thought leader Peter Block defines helping as doing something with and for clients that they cannot do by themselves.[1] The helping process can be found in different types of work: Doctors, parents, community organizers, teachers, psychologists, Genius Bar technicians, and many others engage in helping relationships. People leaders also engage in helping relationships to serve the needs of their teams.

Leaders can help in different ways

In any situation, leaders have a choice about how they can help. Organization development scholar-practitioner Edgar Schein identifies three types of helping in client-consultant relationships.[2] These forms of helping are transferable to report-leader relationships:

  1. The Expert Role provides technical expertise in a specific area. Examples include IT support, doctors, and subject matter advisors. Similarly, people leaders can bring a wealth of technical knowledge to bear on a business challenge based on their past experience. In these situations they play the role of an Expert, and often make recommendations that guide the actions of their teams.

  2. The Pair-of-Hands Role fills resourcing gaps to get things done. Staff augmentation is an example of this kind of helping. While most leaders try to stick to big-picture thinking, sometimes the work demands they roll up their sleeves and dive in, lightening the load of their team members during busy times.

  3. The Collaborative Role helps the client solve problems for themselves. Executive coaches often fall into this category. People leaders have coaching conversations with their team members all the time, helping them think differently so they are better prepared for future challenges.

Each type of helping has benefits and tradeoffs

The Expert is perhaps the most commonly consulted helper and therefore the most widely understood. We often expect leaders to provide advice or give recommendations on how to proceed. However, leaders may find that overplaying the Expert Role increases their team members’ dependency on them for guidance and undermines their ability to solve problems for themselves. Additionally, advice and recommendations seldom carry the kind of personal ownership and commitment needed to transform behavior.

The Pair-of-Hands Role is another common form of helping, especially when a company is rapidly growing and needs additional people power to deliver its products or services. People leaders may find that getting into the weeds can be a refreshing experience, and doing so helps them understand the challenges their reports face. Meanwhile, a leader who dives into the work but is unable to address the challenges they face risks losing credibility on their team.

The Collaborative Partner helps team members solve problems themselves. They serve as both a trigger that sparks aha moments and an accountability mechanism that contributes to follow through. When coaching direct reports, a leader’s inquiry process helps people think differently and arrive at breakthroughs. The ongoing relationships, in which a leader regularly asks how their reports are doing in relation to their growth goals, helps people stick to their action plans and reinforces learning.

On the other hand, effective collaboration requires more time and engagement from the team member (the leader may find that they save time knowing they can confidently delegate more tasks to their people). Furthermore, the Collaborative Role is less common and therefore less understood. Team members who prefer to work with leaders as Experts may interpret attempts at collaboration as indifference or lack of know-how. Team members who prefer to work with leaders as Pairs of Hands may interpret moves toward collaboration as a lack of investment in the business challenge.

Collaborative Partnerships are best suited to address today’s adaptive challenges

The situation will dictate how a leader helps her people. The Pair-of-Hands approach can be expedient in some high-burn situations. Expert advice can be useful for addressing technical problems. Most of today’s business challenges, however, are adaptive--not technical--in nature, requiring new ways of thinking. Collaborative Partnerships are best suited to address today’s adaptive challenges because they unlock latent potential within team members. In other words, when someone learns to think differently about a problem and solves it themself, they’re better prepared to solve similar problems in the future because they’ve made new connections in their brain.

David Rock sums up the efficacy of Collaborative Partnerships in three simple sentences:

  1. To take any kind of committed action, people need to think things through for themselves;

  2. People experience a degree of inertia around thinking for themselves due to the [mental] energy required;

  3. The act of having an aha moment gives off the kind of energy for people to become motivated and willing to take action.[3]

When leaders coach their people to think differently and arrive at aha moments, they spark behavior change and enhanced engagement. They also build problem-solving resilience into their organizations by "teaching people to fish."

For years research has shown that command-and-control leadership no longer serves us in today’s fast-paced, disruption-filled business environment. We keep hearing about the need to push autonomy and decision-making authority out to customer-facing parts of the organization. This new way of working requires, in turn, new approaches to leadership.


  1. Block, Peter. 1981. Flawless consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used. Austin, Tex: Learning Concepts.

  2. Schein, Edgar H. 1999. Process consultation revisited: building the helping relationship. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

  3. Rock, David. 2006. Quiet leadership: help people think better -- don't tell them what to do : six steps to transforming performance at work. New York: Collins.


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