Setting expectations in high-stakes business culture | Contributor

By Mike Cook
Courtesy to The Bellingham Business Journal

If you are a sports fan, and I am one, you know that fans love to pose hypothetical questions as part of their dialogues. It is a benign way to pass the time between actual sporting events that proves absolutely nothing. But that is the nature of most higher level sports anyway—benign entertainment.

One of the hypothetical questions that is inevitably raised is this: “If you were going to start a new (name your sport) franchise, who would be the first player you’d want on the team?”

Depending on the sport, of course, the players named would differ. Since there is nothing sports fans like more that hypothetical debate—nothing real at stake, lots of differing opinions and lots of emotional release—this type of question is usually worthy of two beers, at least, on any given weeknight.

But it is, after all, hypothetical.

Not so hypothetical is the issue of the type of culture you want to have in your organization. There, the stakes are quite high. Getting it right makes a big difference.

So if you were going to start a business today, what would be the one expectation for which you would want to model, communicate, encourage, reward and design? This expectation would insure a culture you would want to be part of, one that performs at high level on a consistent basis and attracts people that you’d want to be associated with.

If you are like me, you have read your share of books and articles about what a great culture looks and feels like. In much of that reading, I find complexity that discourages me from wanting to try to match the ideals put forward.

In reading “IDEO’s Culture of Helping,” I was struck by the simplicity and humanity of the approach modeled by the leaders: Don’t hesitate to ask for help, and make room in your schedule to help those around you.

The really startling thing about this approach is that IDEO’s finished products represent very customized ideas that pass through complex project management to reach their final form. What IDEO’s senior leadership seems to recognize is that the more complex the work, the more likely it is that no one person will have all the answers. Collaborative behaviors are a must for success to be realized.

You might visit the IDEO website and come away thinking: “But our business isn’t that sophisticated, we just need people who can follow directions and be responsible.”

I’d challenge your thinking there, because you are likely thinking like an engineer doing a project map, assuming that everything will go as planned. It never does. That is why you need people who have developed a strong sense of mutual self-interest. (And no, this is not a contradiction.)

Unless your employees are performing uncomplicated tasks that they can complete on their own—no interdependency or collaboration and limited cooperation required—then I’d say it is wise to establish with a new employee that you expect them to have to ask for help and be helpful themselves.

Not only do you need to express this expectation, you might also want to:

– Model it yourself, be available and also ask for assistance

– Make clear that asking for help is a sign of wisdom not weakness

– Make clear that the more an employee is able to help others, the more their perceived value increases

– Reward helping behavior, rather than incentivize it

– Designate and identify “helpers” for specific areas of knowledge

– Embed “help” in the work practices of your organization

– Address political battles directly

– Design working spaces to encourage and allow cross-functional contact

– Arrange mentoring for employees who get stuck in a competitive mindset

Once you get started down this path, the ideas of what you can do to encourage collaboration just start to flow. It is the way people want to work when they allow themselves the freedom to imagine their ideal workplace.

Think about it for a minute. If you were looking for a place to work, how would you set it up? I bet (hypothetically of course) that you might start with a blank sheet of paper, and at the top you’d write: What’s it like to work there?

Everyone knows that the most important value of the place is making each other successful.

Mike Cook is a management developer who lives in Anacortes, Wash. He publishes a weekly blog at

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