Deep Help in Complex Project Work: Guiding and Path-Clearing Across Difficult Terrain

59 Pages Posted: 20 Oct 2017

See all articles by Colin Fisher

Colin Fisher

University College London - UCL School of Management

Julianna Pillemer

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School

Teresa M. Amabile

Harvard University - Entrepreneurial Management Unit

Date Written: October 20, 2017

Abstract

How do teams working on complex projects get the help they need? Our qualitative investigation of the help provided to project teams at a prominent design firm revealed two distinct helping processes, both characterized by deep, sustained engagement that far exceeds the brief interactions described in the helping literature. Such deep help consisted of (1) guiding a team through a difficult juncture by working with its members in several prolonged, tightly clustered sessions, or (2) path-clearing by helping a team address a persistent deficit via briefer, intermittent sessions throughout a project’s life. We present a model theorizing these processes, which has two noteworthy features. First, it emphasizes the socially constructed nature of helping behavior. That is, the parties must establish and maintain a helping frame for their interaction, especially when help-givers are high-status external leaders. Second, the model specifies that the rhythms of deep help—the duration and temporal patterns of giver–receiver interactions—are resource-allocation decisions that also contribute to the social meaning of help. These findings illuminate the theoretical and practical overlap between helping and external leadership in knowledge-intensive project work, and the role of temporality in the helping process.

Keywords: helping, rhythm, prosocial behavior, external team leadership, social construction, groups and teams, time, qualitative methods, field research

Suggested Citation

Fisher, Colin and Pillemer, Julianna and Amabile, Teresa M., Deep Help in Complex Project Work: Guiding and Path-Clearing Across Difficult Terrain (October 20, 2017). Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial Management Working Paper No. 18-035. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3056293 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3056293

Colin Fisher

University College London - UCL School of Management ( email )

One Canada Square
London, E14 5AA
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.mgmt.ucl.ac.uk/people/colinfisher

Julianna Pillemer

University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School ( email )

3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

Teresa M. Amabile (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Entrepreneurial Management Unit ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02163
United States

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