Russell Johnson of Michigan State University and his co-researchers asked managers to track the help they gave colleagues over 10 days and how recipients responded. The team found that when people lent a hand without being asked, they were less likely to be shown gratitude than when they helped upon request. Study participants also felt less sociable and engaged at work a day after they'd given proactive assistance. The conclusion: You shouldn't volunteer to help your co-workers.
Q: Professor Johnson, defend your research.
A: Our findings do suggest that we all need to be cautious about offering unsolicited help. We're often told that it's good to be proactively helpful, especially with teammates. But it's important to recognize that the time and effort you put into that assistance — and take away from your own work — may not be appreciated. More often than not, according to our study, the recipient won't show gratitude, and that means you won't reap the psychological benefits of helping. Even 24 hours later, you'll feel less relationship-oriented, less cooperative, and less energized about work.
Q: But if you see someone struggling, shouldn't you step in anyway? And not worry whether everyone will feel warm and fuzzy about it afterward?
A: My co-authors — Hun Whee Lee, Jacob Bradburn and Chu-Hsiang Chang of Michigan State, and Szu-Han Lin at UMass Amherst — and I would advise you to think twice. First, as an outside observer, you might not fully understand the person's problem. Your judgment might be clouded by biases such as projection or selective perception. You'll probably have to use a lot of cognitive resources to figure out what's really going on, with no guarantee of giving your colleague the help that's actually needed. Second, maybe the person's preference was to solve the problem on his or her own and learn from the experience. If you swoop in without being asked, you're more likely to threaten your co-worker's sense of autonomy and mastery at work and diminish his or her self-esteem. In two follow-up surveys of about 500 full-time employees in North America, we found evidence for both those phenomena. Respondents who recalled times when they'd proactively helped co-workers reported having less clarity on the issues at hand than those describing instances when they'd reactively helped. And people who told us about being given help were more likely to feel threatened if they hadn't asked for it. In those cases, the help was also less effective. So it's no wonder the helpers weren't thanked.
Q: Can you work around this by getting the person who needs help to ask you for it?
A: It might be better to approach with a question — "Anything I can do to help?" — and allow your colleague to say yes or no. I think tone and body language are probably important, too. There's a difference between offering help in a smarmy, arrogant way and doing it with kindness and humility. But our research didn't get into those nuances.
Q: Does hierarchy matter? Aren't bosses supposed to help their employees and vice versa?
A: It might. Our studies focused on peer-to-peer interactions. We asked our first group — 54 people enrolled in a part-time executive MBA course, who were also employed full-time in a variety of industries — to report back to us via online surveys about activity on 10 consecutive workdays, and they gave us information on 232 incidents in which they'd helped colleagues. In the follow-up studies, conducted via Mechanical Turk, we asked similar questions about giving and receiving assistance from co-workers. Maybe our findings would have been different if we'd considered the boss-employee dynamic. But I don't know. When your supervisor gives you proactive help, is it useful or micromanaging? If subordinates step in without being asked, are they doing their jobs or undermining the manager's power and status? Or just brown-nosing?
Q: Are there any implications for people in client-facing roles? Should we now instruct salespeople to be reactive rather than proactive?
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A: The help we studied — between co-workers — was discretionary. Help given to a client is a little different because it's part of your formal duties, so proactivity might be expected, and regardless of the kind of help, you're probably less likely to be thanked.
Q: Were there any differences between men and women?
A: We didn't find any. Of course, there's a large body of existing research showing that women tend to be more communal and collaborative in the workplace and can be penalised if they aren't, since it runs counter to what's expected of them. But when it comes to the impact of proactive versus reactive helping, there doesn't seem to be a gender component.
Q: You studied one-on-one help. What about volunteering in a group setting? Is that better or worse?
A: I suspect that an unprompted public offer to help a co-worker would magnify the problem. The person might be embarrassed and feel an even greater threat to his or her ego. On the other hand, if you see a problem that the group is collectively facing, and you raise your hand to solve it, that might not be a bad thing. But motive matters, too, whether your target is an individual or the team. If you're helping not for altruistic reasons but because you know your boss is watching and want to make yourself look good, research shows, people are likely to react negatively. That said, when we drilled down into the hundreds of interactions we studied to analyze helper motivation — that is, whether people were driven by a concern for others or a desire to feel better about themselves — we found that it had no effect on the kind of help they gave or the expressions of gratitude they received.
Q: What about corporate culture? Can it play a role in legitimising proactive helping?
A: We didn't ask our study participants about that aspect of their workplaces. But it would be interesting to examine whether the findings would be different in cooperative versus competitive cultures, or hierarchical versus flat organizations. One practical recommendation we'd make to managers in any setting is this: Encourage people to focus on their own work. Explain that it's OK to take a sit-back-and-wait approach to helping. But also make sure to create an environment in which everyone who needs help feels comfortable asking for it and anyone able to give help is both approachable and willing to jump in as soon as a request is made.
Q: Has this study prompted you to change the way you give and receive help?
A: As a mentor to PhD students, I have an open-door policy and try to always be available to them. But they must ask for help. I don't go around looking for fires to put out. Especially in a learning context like the university, I may notice students struggling, but I know they usually want to figure the solution out on their own. Also, when someone helps me or I see one student helping another, I go out of my way to acknowledge and show gratitude to the helper.
Written by: Alison Beard
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