Rebalancing the Give and Take at Work

In an organizational setting, helpful behaviour can be the glue for a high-performing group and a boon to introverts. But it can be the bane of lone outliers

Rebalancing the Give and Take at Work

The Essentials

We’ve all heard about how innovation through collaborative work is the engine of the knowledge economy. Part of what keep this engine clicking is the willingness of employees to help colleagues rather than focus on themselves. Helpful behaviour can satisfy personal psychological needs and ease social integration but, if executed clumsily, can undermine a career. Matthias Spitzmuller, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s School of Business, has studied dimensions of helping in an organizational setting; for example, he looks at how lone outliers trying to be helpful can be perceived negatively by fellow team members. In this conversation with QSB Insight, Spitzmuller discusses what organizations can do to create an environment in which helping is the norm.

An Internship Experience Leaves a Lasting Impression

In 1999, I was studying at a university in Switzerland and during my internship I spent three months at a DaimlerChrysler factory in Germany. It was just a few weeks after the merger between the two companies had been announced. Whenever this happens, it usually means cost cuttings, tremendous focus on efficiency in the organization, and so on. 

I was part of a team that was supposed to make lean operations happen within that plant. I expected there would be a lot of resistance among employees because their own jobs were threatened. What I perceived instead was that the employees were willing to co-operate with us and with the objectives that management had set out. For me, what has been especially interesting is why there are people who sacrifice their own work so that they can help others. What is the incentive for them to respond to this calling? And what can organizations do to increase the likelihood that a cooperative work environment serves the interests of everyone involved?

When Helping Pays Off or Backfires 

The act of helping allows us to satisfy personal needs and motives. When we help others, we usually experience a feeling of competence, a feeling of relatedness to others because the act of helping connects us with other people. That can facilitate social integration. Helping can also be instrumental when it comes to developing social networks and advancing the careers of individuals. 

But it’s important to determine who you’re going to help and the right forms it takes so that it doesn’t cut into the core tasks of your job. Research by Adam Grant (Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), for example, distinguishes among givers, matchers, and takers. Givers are people who help more than they receive help. Matchers are on equal terms with others, and takers actually suck out social energy from the environment. What Grant finds is that the givers are on top of their respective careers and at the very bottom, which shows that if not done in the right way, this can really become a problem.

At times, helping behaviour can come with personal costs. Research by Diane Bergeron (Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University) shows that people who engage in helpful behaviours are evaluated more favourably by their supervisors. But what’s surprising is that it’s lost on their career and salary progression. They may get more favourable performance evaluations but, come promotion time, they’re bypassed. They’ve neglected aspects of their job because they helped others. 

Researchers at University of Oklahoma show that people who help others at work experience more family conflict. Greater helping increases the demands at their workplace which means they have less resources available for their family. And it increases their stress, especially so for women who are expected to be excellent in both the work and the family domains.

The Upside for Introverts

My own research shows that there are certain personality dispositions that determine whether or not an individual will benefit from helping others. Individuals who are less emotionally stable seem to benefit. We think helping others allows them to be distracted from personal troubles and to demonstrate competence, which is important for them because they always question themselves. 

Introverts can also benefit. Introverts struggle at times to develop social connections within an organization, so the act of helping facilitates social interaction. If you offer a helping hand to someone, it’s much easier to get in touch with that person than to knock on their office door and try to chat.

A study we conducted in the field found that those individuals who were described as helpful by their peers were more likely to experience higher psychological well-being when they were introverted when compared to the more extroverted employees.

Why a Helpful Outlier Pays a Price

Whenever bystanders question your motives for helping, bad things usually happen. We took that insight into a study involving Caucasian-dominated teams with only one non-Caucasian employee. So that lone person is very visible; everything he or she does gets interpreted not only as a personal action but as a representation of his or her entire group. 

We found that the majority team members tended to attribute the helping behaviour of lone outsiders to the desire to ingratiate themselves, to impression management rather than genuine altruism. When helping behaviours are viewed negatively, this causes personal disappointment and reduces the outsider’s satisfaction with the group. So a really positive activity of helping the group has negative consequences for the helper and negative team consequences because they lose a valuable team member.

But whenever you add a second minority member to a team, the negative effect disappears. Suddenly the ethnic minorities become individuals with their own personalities, and people take more care in identifying the motives for their actions. 

This has important implications for staffing in organizations. Whenever we leave employees isolated in a social setting — like a female engineer or a male midwife — this can give rise to difficult situations. You need to try to ensure adequate representation of minorities at work so that the minority employee does not get discriminated against.

Turning Helpers in Organizational Assets

A positive, co-operative work environment is one of the biggest assets an organization can develop. One thing organizational leaders can do is to make sure incentives are formulated in a way that facilitates the career path of very helpful employees. 

When I was working as a consultant in Germany, there was one extremely helpful employee who sacrificed a lot of his time by coaching junior consultants within the organization. The CEO of the company approached this employee and invited him to bill these hours to the organization. He said, Whenever you coach junior staff, I want to recognize you for this work. We’ll treat this as if you were coaching employees of a client organization. This had a strong impact on the individual; suddenly he didn’t feel that he was just wasting his time and that being helpful was aligned with organizational incentives. 

Leaders can also work towards moving their organizations to what I would refer to as a generalized exchange system, meaning that the norm is not only that you reciprocate towards the person who has done you a favour but that you reciprocate to the larger social community. It really becomes a shared belief of the community in terms of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. It’s very hard to move a group in this direction but if you get it there, it is considered to be highly attractive to outsiders. People want to join that group.

Research has shown that manufacturing industries with output-based systems or services such as consulting struggle to create such a co-operative work environment because people know that what I don’t do for myself reduces the output or number of billable hours I can claim. By contrast, organizations with metrics that emphasize the performance of the collective do much better in this respect. 

Interview by Alan Morantz