When You Should Help Your Coworkers—and When to Think Twice

When You Should Help Your Coworkers—and When to Think Twice

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Research offers some guidance on how to be more helpful at work—for everyone’s benefit.

When was the last time you helped a colleague at work?

Helping in the workplace can take various forms—for example, training an intern, comforting a colleague in distress, or taking on extra work to complete a team project.

If your organization has a competitive work culture—or if you’re anything like the 35 percent of working Americans who feel overwhelmed by their workload—helping others in the workplace may not be at the top of your priority list. However, research suggests that more helpful workplaces actually perform better; they produce better-quality products and have increased sales. And helping others at work feels good.

If you can’t recall the last time you lent a hand to a coworker, the three questions below may help you start thinking about your interactions at work and how you could be of more service to others in the workplace.

1. When are you most likely to help others at work?

Are you more likely to help when a colleague asks you for help (called reactive helping) or when you perceive the need for help without being asked (proactive helping)?

Surprisingly, proactive helping can sometimes be problematic. A recent studysurveyed 51 employees from diverse industries on their proactive and reactive helping behaviors. They rated how much they helped coworkers make progress, deal with problems, or avoid potential problems either without being asked or when their coworkers explicitly requested help.

The study found that when people engaged in reactive helping—helping when asked—they received more gratitude. In turn, the helpers perceived that they had a greater impact and felt more engaged at work the next day. Put simply, reactive helpers felt good after helping.

But that wasn’t the case for proactive helpers. Proactive helpers didn’t receive as much gratitude, which seemed to diminish the psychological returns for them.

Even the most altruistically motivated helper wants to feel good about the contribution they’re making, and the good feelings we get from reactive helping will encourage us to help in the future.

This doesn’t mean we should never offer proactive help—but it has to be done carefully. Rather than jumping in and fixing something, you can help a colleague come up with their own solutions. Even better, you can encourage reactive helping by communicating to colleagues that you’re willing to help if needed, increasing the likelihood that they will ask for help directly.

2. Why do you help others at work?

Motivation is a key driving force of behavior. The first step in understanding how you help others is to get clear on what motivates you.

A 2014 study provides some insight on why motives matter. The study surveyed 174 professionals, from diverse industries, about their helping behaviors in the workplace. Respondents were asked about how much they helped fellow colleagues by sharing work-related knowledge, helping with work problems, explaining a regulation or procedure, or helping a colleague after they were absent.

They found that how much people helped depended on their motivation. Individuals who reported altruistic motives—based on personal values or a desire to contribute to the team—helped more than employees who reported helping others under specific conditions (if it wouldn’t interfere with their work, the person asking for help was perceived to be worthy, or they had the knowledge and skills to help).

Ask for Help at Work

People motivated by altruism are less concerned with their reputation and status when helping others. They help because they believe it’s the right thing to do, even if there’s a personal cost in doing so, like lost time.

If your reasons for helping others in the past have been less altruistic, be on the lookout for the next opportunity to support your work team. Then, try focusing more on making a meaningful contribution to the group and less on the benefits you hope to gain. It will take some pressure off of you, and chances are you’ll be appreciated anyway (because your helping signals to the group your motivation to contribute to the common good).

3. Whom do you tend to help at work?

Think back to the last several people you helped at work. Who were they?

Chances are they shared many characteristics with you, like race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Research shows that homophily, the tendency to connect to people who are similar to us, structures our social networks at work. As a result, your helping may be restricted to a homogenous group of work colleagues, limiting your efforts.

In fact, research suggests that people are less helpful in more diverse work groups. A 2009 study of 1,762 employees from a large electronics company in Korea, representing 96 separate work units, found that in more diverse groups (in terms of gender and education), respondents observed fewer of the following behaviors among coworkers: 1) going out of their way to help others with work problems, 2) showing genuine concern and courtesy toward others, and 3) voluntarily helping new employees settle into the job.

In addition to homophily, this pattern is likely linked to intergroup bias, as well. Intergroup bias causes us to subconsciously evaluate those who are similar to us more favorably than those who are not—for example, when determining the perceived worthiness of someone who needs our help. Or when deciding who is trustworthy, which also greatly impacts our likeliness to help others.

One way to break this subconscious pattern is to expand your work network to be inclusive of those who are different from you and to be cognizant of your personal biases that may come into play when making decisions at work. Practicing mindfulness is a good starting point.

While many efforts to boost workplace productivity today focus on increasing employee satisfaction and well-being, helping merits more attention. Helping could be the missing link that explains why employees in a better mood perform better—happier employees are more likely to help others, and workplaces with helping cultures see better employee performance. And who wouldn’t want to work in a happy, helpful, and productive workplace?