The hidden cost of helping your co-workers

August 5, 2016
Milenko Martinovich
management, work, co-workers, business

If you’re an employee who takes pride in helping others at work, you likely feel good after assisting a colleague.

But are those good feelings coming at a price?

New research from University of Florida management professor Klodiana Lanaj explores the cost of helping co-workers, notably how the helper’s own productivity can suffer. These themes are explored in two recent articles published by Lanaj, who in May was one of 10 professors to receive the university’s Excellence Awards for Assistant Professors, which recognizes junior faculty for their research.

Lanaj breaks down some of the studies’ major findings and offers advice for helpers and “helpees.”

What motivated these two studies?

If you look at the research done on pro-social behavior — being helpful at work — the majority of research shows that helping is really good. When you help others, the individual benefits, the group benefits, and the organization benefits as well. But there was very little emphasis on what happens to the person who helps. You won’t find this as part of your job description, but if you don’t help, your boss will probably look down on you.

What were the major findings in your research?

When you help others, people think of you as a good person, you think of yourself as a good person, and you experience more positive emotions. But, at the same time, it actually interferes with the extent of the progress you can make on your own goals. What happens is you feel exhausted from the help. So it has this dual effect.

Whenever we pay attention, try to change the way we think, feel or behave, we draw from an internal pool of resources. So when you help, that pool — which is fixed — becomes depleted.

Think of it as running a race. The first couple of miles, you don’t feel anything — you may even feel energized. But as you run, say, a marathon, you become depleted at an increasing rate. It’s the same with helping. Helping once a day doesn’t make a big difference, but the more times you help, the more depleted you become.

What was the most surprising finding?

Going into the research we thought pro-socially motivated people — people who have a tendency to help more — would not be depleted because they help regularly and they enjoy doing it. What we find is it’s actually worse for them. I think the reason is because people who are pro-socially motivated — good, kind, altruistic people — they really invest. When you go to them for help, they really want to make a difference. So they invest a lot of resources which makes helping particularly depleting for them.

We also find that when you help and it’s beneficial to others, you get energized. But pro-social people get less out of this too. We think this might be because they’re so used to providing high-quality help that they’re used to people benefiting from that help. So when someone says, “Thank you so much. That was really helpful,” it doesn’t stand out because it’s a normal thing they see all the time.

What advice do you have for pro-social employees and “helpees”?

If you are someone who needs help at work, first try to figure it out on your own. You can do that by checking a manual or for resources online. If you do have to ask for help, I think it’s really important to express gratitude.

Managers should be aware that helping can be beneficial and come at a cost. Therefore, people should allocate their time accordingly. For example, if you have a deadline for an important project coming up, it’s okay to say, “I can’t really take time now to help you. I need to figure this thing first. Why don’t you come later.” Managers can be more strategic about when they help others. I think a lot of managers expect their employees to help all the time. It’s okay to expect employees to say no or take a break sometimes because responding to help requests has negative consequences.

Lanaj’s studies “When Lending a Hand Depletes the Will: The Daily Costs and Benefits of Helping” (co-authored by UF management professor Mo Wang) and “Integrating the Bright and Dark Sides of OCB: A Daily Investigation of the Benefits and Costs of Helping Others” appear in the Journal of Applied Psychology and the Academy of Management Journal, respectively.

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