When was the last time you went out of your way to help a colleague at work?
Many of us will have to stop and think about it. We often get so wrapped up in our own work we don’t have much time or energy to consider what’s going on with our colleagues. But that means we’re missing a valuable opportunity to create a more positive workplace and build stronger work relationships.
Helping your colleagues strengthens your reputation and makes you a sought-after addition to new teams. It can lead to new opportunities within your company, including a raise or promotion, or even a new job.
The law of reciprocity also comes into play here. When you help others, they want to help you in return. Being kind is like sowing seeds in a garden; what you reap is always greater than what you sow.
That said, there are times when you should think twice about offering a helping hand. Here’s a look at how helping more at work is important, how to help, and when you might want to refrain from offering assistance.
What Influences Our Willingness to Help
You might not realize it, but several underlying factors can influence your willingness to help others on your team or in your organization.
In American and Western European cultures, the wants and needs of the individual are often seen as more important than the wants and needs of the group. These cultures stress autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence.
By contrast, cultures such as China, Japan, and India are collectivist. The wants and needs of the group are considered more important than the wants and needs of the individual. In these cultures, people often do what’s best for others before they do something for themselves.
A study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior illustrates how this plays out. Researchers studied the behavior of engineers at American and Indian companies to find out who was helping whom and how it was viewed within the company. In the American company, engineers only helped people they expected to need help from in the future. In the Indian company, engineers were more willing to help anyone who needed help.
What’s fascinating is how the act of helping was viewed within each company. At the American company, team members saw the act of helping as an unpleasant interruption. At the Indian company, they saw it as an opportunity for skill development.
Cultural norms can subconsciously influence your behavior. Fortunately, being aware of these norms allows you to change your behavior and act in ways that align with your deeper values.
Similarities & Differences
We’re more likely to help colleagues who are similar to us in terms of gender, socioeconomic status, or race. This tendency is called homophily, and research shows it dramatically limits our ability to make an impact at work and in our personal lives. If we’re only willing to help those who are just like us, then we neglect the majority of our colleagues.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Management Studies found that people were more helpful in work groups where team members had a similar gender or education level. Team members in diverse groups were less likely to go out of their way to help others with work problems, show genuine concern and courtesy toward others, or voluntarily help new team members settle into their roles.
Another study, published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, found that homophily exists even in online platforms and virtual work groups. The study also provides insight into the origin of this tendency. Thousands of years ago, we were more likely to survive if we banded together with others like ourselves. This survival mindset was important when our ancestors were fighting off warring tribes and competing for scarce resources. But today, it can significantly hinder our ability to work effectively with a diverse group of people.
In our global economy, we’re far more likely to succeed if we’re willing to lend a helping hand to whoever needs it, regardless of how different they are from us. Fortunately, recognizing homophilic tendencies within yourself is a step toward overcoming it. When you know you’re more likely to offer help to someone similar to you, you can choose to do the opposite.
Why You Should Help Out at Work
There are many benefits of lending a helping hand to your colleagues.
1. It Boosts Your Reputation
First, being known as a helper can strengthen your reputation and open up new opportunities to work on key projects. When you consistently help others, people want you on their team.
You also help create a more positive work culture because helping creates goodwill between people. When you help someone out, they’re inspired to do the same for someone else. And in a world where far too many workplaces are toxic, your boss is sure to notice and appreciate any positive effects you have on your colleagues’ moods.
2. It Showcases Your Leadership Skills
If you’re in a leadership role, it’s important to combat homophilic tendencies within your team. When you’re forming groups for a project, make an effort to diversify as much as possible to create a mix of genders, ages, races, ethnicities, education levels, and skill levels.
It can also help to rotate team members and leadership roles, letting other people participate or lead the group temporarily. This can help prevent cliques from forming, foster new ideas, and encourage different viewpoints.
These steps can lead to more effective, diverse teams, and your company will appreciate the added value this generates. It also demonstrates your leadership skills to your boss and other higher-ups. Both of these things can benefit your career long-term, especially when challenging projects or promotion opportunities arise.
3. It Improves Your Performance Reviews
Helping out can also help lead to a better performance review. A study published by the Journal of Applied Psychology found that managers consistently considered high organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) when rating employees and deciding who to reward.
OCBs are actions or beliefs that, while not critical or required for your role, benefit your team and company. Staying late to finish an important project, making sure your team is working safely and adhering to company rules, and consistently showing enthusiasm are all examples of OCBs.
4. It Leads to Job Opportunities
Helping can also yield financial benefits. When it comes time for you to ask for a raise or promotion or interview for a new job, colleagues you’ve helped will be happy to provide testimonials of your hard work or volunteer as references.
They’ll also be more willing to recommend you for opportunities at other companies that come across their radar. When you’re known as a helper, your professional and social network feels comfortable vouching for you to others they know. Like the ripples in a pond, a few acts of helpfulness can lead to many opportunities down the road.
5. It Teaches You Valuable New Skills
Helping a colleague with a task opens you up to learning opportunities you might not be exposed to otherwise. A great example of this is Kat Cole, who was interviewed by The Atlantic.
Cole began working at Hooters restaurant when she was a teenager. She was the kind of person who helped out wherever it was needed. When the cook quit, Cole headed to the kitchen and learned to prepare every dish in the restaurant. When the manager quit, she learned how to run a shift.
By the time she was 19, Cole had worked every position in the restaurant, and the company invited her to Australia to help them open up their first restaurant there. Plenty of other candidates with degrees were competing for the opportunity, but few could match Cole’s hands-on experience. By volunteering for all these positions, she had quickly acquired invaluable knowledge and skills that directly benefited her career.
Within a year of her move to Australia, Cole was head of corporate training. Eventually, she climbed the corporate ladder and became the CEO of Cinnabon at age 35.
When you help others, you invariably learn new skills and gain more experience doing a wide variety of tasks. And that could pay huge dividends for your career over time.
6. It Generates Greater Long-Term Success
Many people shy away from helping others because they fear falling behind in their own work. This fear is understandable. Most people have far more work than they can reasonably finish in a day.
However, people who are more willing to help out achieve more, and earn more, over the long term than those who don’t. In the same Atlantic article, researcher Adam Grant, author of the best-selling book “Give and Take,” states that consistently helping out at work – which he calls “giving” – is inefficient in the short term but surprisingly beneficial over the long term.
Grant studied the long-term results from “givers” in the sales industry. At first, these givers generated the lowest revenue. They frequently put their customers’ needs above their own sales targets and other performance metrics. Yet after a year, the givers had the highest sales revenue, perhaps because they generated so much goodwill that clients were eager to buy from them again and again.
When You Shouldn’t Help Out at Work
Offering a helping hand to a colleague is almost always a good idea. However, there are a couple of times when you might want to think twice about offering a hand – or at least be careful how you word the offer.
When Your Colleague Hasn’t Asked for Help
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology looked at the two primary ways people help in the workplace and the different benefits of each. Proactive help is offering assistance when your colleague hasn’t asked for it. Reactive helping is helping when asked.
The study found that reactive helpers received more gratitude than proactive helpers. Reactive helpers also felt they were making a greater impact at work, and thus felt more engaged at work the next day. These positive feelings can lead to higher productivity and a greater sense of happiness at work.
That wasn’t the case for proactive helpers. Proactive helpers received less gratitude, and thus didn’t experience the same psychological benefits that lead to increased engagement. One possible theory for this is that proactive helpers can be seen as “overstepping their bounds.” In other words, the person in need of help might think the helper sees them as weak or incompetent, so they’re less grateful for the assistance offer.
If you’re a proactive helper, your colleagues might start to see you as a busybody, micromanager, or know-it-all. So while it’s important to be helpful at work, it’s also important to be careful about how you do it.
What to Do Instead
If you see a struggling colleague who won’t ask for help, there are ways you can offer it without being intrusive. Instead of providing a solution, give them the tools or knowledge to solve the problem on their own. For example, point them to a book or website that might help or offer to connect them with someone else in the department or company who can give them advice.
Or you can simply say, “Hey, I’m here to help you if you need it” and leave it at that. If they genuinely want your help, they’ll come looking for you.
When You’re Overwhelmed
One drawback of helping is that the more you help others, the more drained you feel. Klodiana Lanaj, a University of Florida business professor, found in her research that the more employees helped others, the more depleted they felt. This depletion manifested itself as reduced willpower and focus, difficulty managing emotions, and less persistence to work through difficult tasks.
Before you offer help to someone else, assess your own workload and energy level. If you’re already buried and spend an hour helping a colleague, how will you feel afterward? You might feel good that you helped a colleague, but you also might feel resentful that you’re now even more behind and tired than you were to begin with.
Helping out a colleague when you have too much on your plate can also hurt your productivity and cause you to miss key performance goals. If you get too far behind on your own work, it can get you in trouble with your boss.
What to Do Instead
If you really want to help but are overwhelmed with your own tasks, Lanaj suggests offering to help at a later time. For example, you could offer to help at the end of the day, at the end of the week, or when you’ve accomplished your most important goals or tasks for the day.
How to Be More Helpful at Work
You want to help out more at work, and you have the time and energy to pitch in. What can you do?
1. Ask for Help
One way to be more helpful at work is to ask for help when you need it. It sounds paradoxical, but remember, reactive helpers received many benefits from helping their colleagues, such as feeling increased gratitude and greater engagement at work the next day.
When you ask a colleague for help, you give them the opportunity to reap these benefits. In turn, they’re more willing to ask you for help in the future. Asking for help also shows others you’re willing to be vulnerable and humble, which benefits your professional reputation.
Being a good listener helps in several ways.
First, listening allows you to identify how best to help a struggling colleague. It enables you to read between the lines and figure out what the other person really needs. For example, a colleague who’s up against a tight deadline might not necessarily need help with her report. But by listening, you might realize what she does need is someone to get her lunch so she can keep working. You could say, “Hey, I’m stepping out for lunch in a few minutes. Why don’t I grab something for you?”
Second, colleagues who are feeling stressed or emotionally frazzled appreciate the opportunity to vent for a minute. Show that you’re listening and empathizing with their situation. Put down your phone and look away from the computer. Maintain eye contact and recap what they said to show you were paying attention. For example, you might say, “So, if I understand what you’re saying, it sounds like…” Don’t try to fix their problem; just give them a listening ear and a few minutes of your time.
3. Look for Distress Signals
For many people, asking for help is hard. Even a colleague who’s drowning in work might not say a word, simply because they don’t want to be seen as weak or unable to do their job. Someone who’s going through a hard time in their personal life might be desperate for a listening ear but unsure how to ask for help.
Look for signs that a colleague is in trouble, such as increased absences, missed deadlines, or tardiness. Also look for changes in behavior, such as someone who’s normally friendly and easygoing becoming withdrawn or irritable.
When you notice signs of distress, wait for the right time to offer help or a listening ear. Make sure the two of you are alone, and don’t ask for the root cause of their behavior. After all, you want to help, not pry into their personal life.
Word your offer based on what you can see, not an assumption of what’s behind those emotions. For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been missing our group lunches lately. Is there anything I can help you with?”
Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
Offering a helping hand at work pays off in many ways. You help create a more positive work culture, something that’s sorely needed these days. You reap the psychological benefits of helping someone else. And you increase the likelihood you’ll get help in return someday.
Helping your colleagues also strengthens your professional reputation. Good leaders want to hire team players who go out of their way to help others. You never know how one tiny act of kindness will pay off down the road or what doors it might open.
What are some of your ideas for helping out more at work?