At Sprout Social, our engineering team works in small units called “squads.” Each engineering squad works very closely to one another as they tackle building our product together day in and day out.

Working with these teams, we’ve noted a few of the ways that team members become beloved assets to their squads. As we strive to create a merit-based culture, we pay close attention to individuals who go beyond offering empty gestures and take the steps to reaching solutions.

So what are some key differences that separate these folks from others? “They are helpful” is the obvious answer, but there can be a lot of nuance around “being helpful.”

To explain this, we’ve defined a spectrum of five levels to being helpful:

Level 1: Have Fun With That

Struggling teammate: This project is killing me. It’s way harder than I thought.
Bad teammate: Have fun with that.

The lowest level on our spectrum is responding to any team member needing assistance with cynicism. There’s a small amount of humor and sympathy shared, but ultimately it’s more important to offer a solution rather than leave them hanging with a feeling of futility.

Level 2: Let Me Know How I Can Help

Struggling teammate: This project is killing me. It’s way harder than I thought.
Mediocre teammate: Wow, interesting. Well, let me know how I can help.

Hearing folks say “let me know how I can help” to their peers is common, yet counterintuitive as it’s not actually helpful. That’s why this ranks low on our spectrum.

Although it feels productive to say to a coworker, “let me know how I can help,” in actuality you’re resigning to the low-probability they will take you up on it.

Some may say this as a genuine offer, but we’ve observed that it’s more often used as an empty gesture. It’s rare that this type of response is followed up and therefore not the most useful way to approach a struggling team member.

Level 3: What Can I Do to Help?

Struggling teammate: This project is killing me. It’s way harder than I thought.
OK teammate: Wow, interesting. What can I do to help?
Struggling teammate: Hmm. Thanks for asking. Maybe you can pair with me later to look at it together?

At first glance, this offer seems the same as the previous. However, the subtle wording adjustment and framing it as a question makes all the difference.

The question demonstrates genuine desire to help and seek information about how to actively help in the moment. Many team members will consider this question seriously and answer honestly.

That said, this is still not what we’d consider the ideal way to help your team. Many find it difficult to articulate how exactly they can be helped.

Level 4: “What If I ______ (Fill in the Blank)?

Struggling teammate: This project is killing me. It’s way harder than I thought.
Great teammate: I see. What if I took part of the project on for you?
Struggling teammate: That’d be awesome! You’re the best.

On the high end of our “helping your team” spectrum is offering a team member a specific way you can help them.

Let’s compare this method with the “let me know how I can help” from No. 2. The problem with saying “let me know how I can help” is that it leaves the burden of figuring out the best course of action on the individual that needs the help. They already have a lot on their plate, yet you’re asking them to figure out how you can get involved, which presents an additional effort to them.

In job interviews, there is a success principle: It’s not the company’s job to figure out how the candidate (i.e. you) may be a fit to the company based on your skills. Instead, it’s the candidate’s responsibility to figure out how you fit what the company needs and what problems the company is trying to solve.

If you’re interested in being viewed as a great asset to your team, take the initiative to figure out how you can help.

Level 5: Just Help, Without Seeking Recognition, Credit or Even Explicit Permission

Ideal teammate: You recognize a teammate is struggling with a project and proactively help push it forward.

We discussed how the previous method seeks permission and therefore causes cognitive burden to the person that needs help.

At Sprout Social, we sometimes use a metaphor, “mopping the floor when no one is watching,” to describe folks that help behind the scenes. We consider the pinnacle of helping your team as doing so “behind the scenes”—observing and empathizing with team members that need help, figuring out ways to be helpful and actively taking the steps to reach a solution.