The critical importance of helping relationships in an organization

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 2
May, 2014

By Dan Coughlin



Business is about selling a product or service that generates a profit for the organization.

Business is about groups of people working together to optimize each other’s efforts and create more value for each other and for customers.

Question: Is business about a P&L Sheet or is it about relationships with other people who work in the organization?

Answer: It’s about both. One without the other is insufficient.

Topics like execution, innovation, branding, prudent financial oversight, and wise investing are all part of a business.

Topics like empathetic listening, positive accepting of other people for who they are, thinking about co-workers with a warm regard, and listening to try to really understand the other person are also a very important part of a business.

One without the other is insufficient.

In an organization there are different types of relationships like supervisor-employee relationships, where the emphasis is on discussing and improving the employee’s performance; small group collaborations, where the emphasis is on discussing ways to improve a project; and senior-level executive relationships, where the emphasis is on clarifying the purpose, nature, and direction of an organization.

However, there is another type of relationship that can happen between any two people in an organization regardless of their titles or functions. I’m calling this a helping relationship. I’m defining a helping relationship as a connection with another person that increases his or her chances for personal growth and increases your chances for personal growth. That is the type of work relationship I will focus on in this article, and I believe it is a crucially important type of relationship for an organization to reach its potential.


In preparing for a speech for hospital CEOs, medical leaders, and other hospital administrators, I asked attendees how they would describe the current rate of change in the healthcare industry. The answer was unanimous. The same thing happened in my preparation for speeches in the banking industry and the real estate industry. The unanimous answer was, “I have never seen the number of changes or the rate of changes that are occurring right now in our industry at any other point in my career.” In some cases, that was a period of more than 30 years.

Proactive change is when an organization tries new systems or approaches in order to improve its future. Reactive change is when an organization is forced to change an existing system or approach in order to survive or thrive. Either way, change creates a lot of stress on different points in an organization. That’s a fancy way of saying that people get stressed out.

Since human beings are the source of new products and services and the delivery of those products and services, it is tremendously important that there are a variety of helping relationships between individuals in the organization. The time invested in these relationships should be seen as enormously important rather than as a waste of the company’s time and money.

Without these relationships, otherwise good employees at all levels in an organization can burn out and leave in a bitter state of frustration and feeling ignored. Two employees going for a long walk in the middle of the day to discuss a sensitive situation can be a very, very good investment of time and energy that can help the organization grow more successfully. I would be very hard pressed to think of any organization that I’ve worked with over the past 20 years where it would not have benefitted from having more helping relationships between their employees. This is not touchy-feely waste of time stuff. This is a critical factor that helps organizations to improve.


Recently I began to read a remarkably interesting book called On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers. He wrote the book in 1961 after 35 years of working as a psychotherapist, or what he also calls a personal counselor. His ideas are based on tens of thousands of hours of working with individuals in one-to-one conversations. I specifically recommend that you read chapters two and three. As I read the book, I was immediately struck by his down-to-earth, practical advice that people, and definitely including me, often forget. I found it to be painful as I read his book and wrote this article to think of the dozens and more likely hundreds of times where I was not helpful at all in relationships with my clients, my family, my friends, and the teenagers that I coach and teach on a volunteer basis. But in learning comes my own personal growth.

Carl Rogers believed that all people are naturally wanting to grow as individuals, but oftentimes parts of them are being counterproductive to that growth. A helping relationship allows the person a safe environment to begin to create a forward movement toward what he or she is capable of becoming. At this point, it sounds so good to be in a helping relationship. The next section is going to show how complex and difficult this effort really can become. But press on. It can be so worth it.


Be True to Yourself and Allow the Other Person to Do the Same

If you feel angry or frustrated, don’t put on a façade of happiness or enthusiasm. Eventually, the other person will realize you are faking your emotion and he or she will stop trusting you. Just accept the way you feel right now. Some people call that being genuine. I call it just being yourself. Don’t put on a show for the other person.

Now that’s tricky enough to do on a regular basis. Here’s something even harder to do. Let the other person be himself or herself. I mean it. If he or she is happy, don’t question that emotion or try to bring it down. If the person is grumpy or stressed or afraid or anxious, be okay and accept that as where the person is right now. Don’t pump the person up or tear the person down. Accept the person with a warm regard as he or she is right now. Maintain an unconditional respect for the person as a person. Demonstrate respect and gain trust by keeping the content of your conversation confidential with that person.

Listen for Understanding, Don’t Evaluate, and Don’t Try to Fix the Person or the Situation

This one has three parts and they are all hard to do.

First, truly try to understand what the person is feeling and why the person is feeling that way. Try very hard to step into his or her situation and see it from the perspective he or she is looking from. So many times we, and definitely I have done this too many times to count, hear about a situation and we start giving feedback about it from our perspective. DON’T DO THAT. It’s not your situation. It’s the other person’s. Work to understand why the person did what he or she did based on where he or she was at that moment. What Carl Rogers found after years of experience is that people start to make progress in terms of personal growth when they feel that they are being heard, accepted, and understood.

Second, and this is the super-duper hard one not to do, don’t evaluate or judge the other person. This includes not saying something negative about his or her decisions, but it also includes not saying something positive. Rogers found that praising someone can be just as dangerous as criticizing the person’s decision or action because giving a compliment leaves open the possibility that you can criticize him or her the next time. In a helping relationship, your job is NOT to judge the person and it most definitely is NOT to pass any judgment on to that person, positive or negative.

Whoa Nellie, that one hit me upside the head. My tendency is to tell people “Good job,” “Way to go,” and “You’re doing fantastic and I’m proud of you.” I do that 90% of the time and give negative feedback about 10% of the time. This happens with clients, family members, friends, and players and students whom I volunteer to coach or teach. When I read Rogers’ ideas, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Judging other people and offering my opinion on their decisions and behaviors is not being helpful to them. The person who needs to evaluate his or her decisions and actions is that person, not me.

Praising and criticizing another person is a conscious or subconscious way of trying to control another person. Read that one again. That’s what startled me. Saying “good job” or “bad job” is a way of trying to maintain subtle control over a person’s behaviors. The only person who should be doing that is the other person, not you. If you are trying to control the other person’s behaviors, even if you are doing it at a subconscious level, you are NOT helping the other person to grow. You are actually getting in the way. Ouch. I know, that one hurts to read because you, like me, were just trying to be helpful, but in praising or criticizing you weren’t being helpful. You were being controlling. And trying to control someone to behave a certain way can keep that person from being able to help himself or herself to grow.

Third, don’t try to “fix” the person or the situation. Don’t offer suggestions or solutions to the other person’s problem. That’s not your job here. Your job is to listen for understanding. If need be, ask questions to gain greater clarity of what the person is thinking or feeling. That might help the other person increase his or her clarity of the situation and what he or she is thinking. However, it’s not your role to offer suggestions on how to fix it. Allow the other person to come up with his or her own solution. You can ask non-judgmental questions to help the person think, but don’t fill in the questions with your answers. Every year along with another person I co-teach a course for 8th graders where we meet twice a month for an hour each class for nine months. A phrase we say a lot is, “We’re not going to tell you what to think, but we most definitely are going to challenge you to think.”

Important point: I’m talking about personal decisions here. In terms of actual job performance, a supervisor obviously has to give consistent feedback to the individual about what he or she is doing well or not doing well. This is how you gain alignment in an organization. However, there are times when a supervisor could be talking with an employee in a helping relationship about matters of personal growth and in those situations the supervisor needs to avoid passing judgment on the person’s choices. This is another reason why it is so important for people in different departments and in different functions to develop helping relationships in an organization. It can be very tricky for a supervisor to be in a helping relationship with a direct report. It’s possible to do it, but it can be very tricky.

Job One is to Create a Safe Environment for the Person to Reflect and Grow Internally

People feel safe when they can talk in a non-judgmental environment. Therefore, don’t give the person your advice or your evaluation or their past history or your interpretation of what they said. That creates an unsafe environment for them to talk out loud. And definitely don’t go down the path of using some psychological technique that you read about somewhere. People don’t want to feel like patients or that they are being “treated.”

Instead just care about the person. Care about his or her growth as an individual, which only he or she can do. Show you care by simply listening to what he or she has to say. You can’t “grow” another person, and neither can I, but you and I can care about the person. What we can do is be there for the other person and provide an environment where the other person feels heard, feels accepted, feels non-judged, feels understood, and feels allowed to make his or her own choices based on a better understanding of his or her situation, which they might arrive at by talking out loud about it.


Your main job is to provide a safe, accepting environment for the other person to talk out loud and express his or her thoughts, feelings, concerns, etc. so that he or she can begin to work things out. If you accept yourself and are genuine in that your internal emotions match your external display of your emotions and if you accept the other person with a warm regard, then the other person might be able to accept himself or herself and stay genuine as well. Your job is not to judge the other person, it’s not to tell the person he or she is right or wrong or good or bad, it’s not to fix the other person or solve the person’s problems, and it’s not to put the other person through some psychological exercise. If you can do the former and avoid the latter, the other person might be able to grow as an individual.

You actually are adding tremendous value to the organization (or family or friendship or volunteer group) by simply being there for the other person in a helping relationship and providing an environment that allows the person to think out loud and possibly grow.

When you are in a truly helping relationship, the other benefit is that you will likely be helped a great deal as well. You will likely act in a more genuine way, understand yourself better, accept yourself with more of a positive regard, and be able to grow personally in a more effective way.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

Back to Newsletter Page