Helping You Help Me: The Role of Diagnostic (In)Congruence in the Helping Process within Organizations

by Colin M. Fisher, Julianna Pillemer & Teresa M. Amabile

Overview — Coming up with new ideas and solving difficult problems in modern organizations is increasingly accomplished through collaboration and teamwork. Often when people collaborate to tackle a knowledge-intensive project, they still need external help to achieve their goals: advice, assistance with task completion, team coaching, mentoring, and/or socio-emotional support. Yet we know little about the helping process itself. Indeed, sometimes helping attempts are useless, or worse. By conducting a field study of helping in a major design firm, the authors of this paper analyzed how the helping process unfolded. In particular, they focused on aspects of the process, differentiating episodes that employees assessed as successful from those they deemed unsuccessful. They discovered that the key differentiator was whether the helper and the person being helped established "diagnostic congruence" at the outset - a shared understanding of the state of the project and what sort of help was needed. Overall, the study contributes to our understanding of helping in organizations by discovering the interactional influences on the success of a helping episode. It also sheds light on help from a process perspective, highlights the importance of timing in aspects of the process, and uncovers the prominent role of emotion in perceptions of unsuccessful helping. Key concepts include:

  • Receivers of help must be assertively proactive in orienting givers to the project and helping givers understand the kind of help needed.
  • Even when parties agree that an episode should be considered "helping," the boundaries of helping roles must still be negotiated in order to clarify what norms and behaviors are applicable.
  • The timing of certain behaviors is an important determinant of how a helping episode will unfold. When help-givers and receivers quickly establish a mutual understanding of the project and what sort of help is needed, they are more likely to have a successful interaction.
  • Both givers and receivers use two primary cues to understand the extent to which an episode is helpful: their perceptions of progress made during the episode and their emotions during the episode, which can be mutually reinforcing.
  • The presence of negative emotion is sufficient to induce perceptions that a helping episode is unsuccessful even when instrumental progress occurs and/or the client is pleased with the outcome.
  • To the extent that individuals perceive their prior experience with any particular helping episode to have been more or less successful, they will be more or less likely to engage in the discretionary behaviors of either seeking or giving help in the future.

Author Abstract

Through an inductive, multi-method field study at a major design firm, we investigated the helping process in project work and how that process affects the success of a helping episode, as perceived by help-givers and/or -receivers. We used daily diary entries and weekly interviews from four project teams, and a separate sample of critical incident interviews, to induce process models of successful and unsuccessful helping episodes. We found that, in unsuccessful episodes, help-givers and -receivers maintained incongruent expectations and project understandings throughout the episode, which we call diagnostic incongruence. In contrast, the parties in successful episodes engaged in aligning practices that fostered shared expectations and project understandings (i.e., diagnostic congruence). Importantly, aligning practices in successful episodes occurred before or at the beginning of episodes. We also found that people's assessments of unsuccessful episodes were often marked by intense emotionality, which sometimes led them to disregard whether the helping resulted in instrumental progress. We discuss the implications of our process model for theory and practice.

Paper Information