Managing a “Helping” Relationship – Here Are 5 Things You Should Know

This chart's showing the countries that are most desirable. It's based on the number of "external searchers" for jobs in those countries.

While I will never outgrow the need to expand and sharpen my technical knowledge, I think some of my biggest “opportunities for improvement” lie in the area of process skills.

I would guess that this is true for many of us who grew up as compensation or benefits specialists – and likely for many in other specialty HR niches. A colleague whose mastery of process has always impressed me recently recommended the book Helping by Edgar Schein. I’m about halfway through, and am finding it to be a gem.

Whether we are external advisors or internal staff consultants – regardless of the titles on our business cards – most of our roles involve helping. But the “helper” role that many of us assume – in organizational settings as well as many others – is full of traps, many of which result from information we don’t have or can’t know at the beginning of a helping relationship.

5 things you may not know

To illustrate, Schein describes the Five Things the Helper Does Not Know at the Beginning:

  • Will the client understand the information, advice or questions being asked? “For example, when giving driving directions in Boston can you assume that the client knows what Mass. Ave., a traffic circle, and the MIT Bridge are?” In an organizational setting, Schein notes, a client may not even grasp the meaning of the term “involve” when discussing whether and how they are involving subordinates in actions and decisions. We in HR and rewards are often guilty of throwing jargon into our inquiries with clients, without knowing whether the client understands those words to mean the same things that we do.
  • Will the client have the knowledge and skill necessary to follow the helper’s recommendations? “For example, when the tennis coach instructs, ‘Bend your knees more,’ can the client actually do that?” We in HR and rewards may feel, for example, that we’ve done our best by giving information on the purpose and mechanics of a pay program to a manager. This may or may not mean that the manager has the knowledge and skill necessary to explain these effectively to his/her subordinates, who are likely to pose some pretty pointed questions.
  • Can the client trust the helper not to use the situation to sell something or exert control inappropriately? “…it can be very disillusioning to discover after several sessions that the therapist, coach or management consultant is actually selling something.” This is particularly true for external advisors, but certainly has application for internal staff consultants as well. Being trusted, as trust expert Charles Green notes, demands switching our orientation away from ourselves to our clients … or, as Charlie puts it, “getting out of our own heads.” Especially important if you do, in fact, have something to sell.
  • As the client, will I be able to do what is suggested? “I have never known what to do when my helper tells me more than I want to know or can remember, especially with directions or computer instructions.” Will we be able to tailor our advice or assistance in a manner that the client can absorb and act on it effectively – perhaps in digestible segments? This can be a particular challenge with reward program overhauls. We are often tempted to ram down a whole suite of reward program innovations in one swoop, overwhelming the client (who often asks us to do just this, for purposes of efficiency or whatever) and putting the success of the whole endeavor at risk in our haste.
  • What will it cost financially, emotionally, and socially to accept the help? “When a stranger has walked me to my destination or carried something for me, how do I reciprocate?” Particularly in formal external consulting situations, we tend to focus on the financial aspect of the exchange – but we shouldn’t overlook the nuances of emotional and social debt that accumulate (perhaps most notably in internal organizational situations) in connection with helping.

Utilizing the “humble inquiry”

These knowledge gaps help illustrate why it is so often important, especially for those of us in the more technical HR specialties, to move beyond what Schein describes as the “Expert Resource” (providing information or service) and even the “Doctor” (diagnosing and prescribing) roles to that of genuine process consulting. He uses the term “humble inquiry” to describe the core of process consulting, as he sees it. That says about the helper’s degree of self-orientation, doesn’t it?

Article Continues Below

Anyway this is a quick outtake for those readers who, like me, are looking for ways to improve their “softer” skills. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book and the chance to apply some of Schein’s lessons!

Ann Bares will talk about A Look at How We Reward the Work of  Today — and Tomorrow at TLNT’s Transform conference in Austin, TX Feb. 26-28, 2012. Click here for more information on attending this event. 

This was originally published on Ann Bares’ Compensation Force blog.

Ann Bares is the Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group. She has over 20 years of experience consulting in compensation and performance management and has worked with a variety of organizations in auditing, designing and implementing executive compensation plans, base salary structures, variable and incentive compensation programs, sales compensation programs, and performance management systems.

Her clients have included public and privately held businesses, both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, early stage entrepreneurial organizations and larger established companies. Ann also teaches at the University of Minnesota and Concordia University.

Contact her at


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *