The Downside of Offering to Help out at Work

A group of people gathered around a coworker at a laptop helping out

It seems counterintuitive to advise someone not to offer to help their coworkers out, but that’s exactly what a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests.

Researchers from Michigan State University found that consistently offering to help your colleagues on tasks and projects, which they called “proactive help,” can have negative effects on both the person giving the help and the person receiving it.

After surveying employees from a wide range of age groups and across several industries, the study concludes that proactive help is likely the least constructive type of help one can give at work. In particular, oftentimes a colleague who is frequently asking if they can offer their assistance is actually less familiar with the problems, issues, or tasks they’re trying to contribute to. In turn, they receive little gratitude for the help that they offer, and this lack of gratitude can have a negative effect on their own morale and job satisfaction levels.

“What we found was that on the helper side, when people engage in proactive help, they often don’t have a clear understanding of recipients’ problems and issues, thus they receive less gratitude for it,” said researcher and Michigan State University management professor Russell Johnson.   

What’s more, if you’re the one who’s being offered help, the researchers say, this can eventually chip away at your own sense of confidence as you begin to question whether or not your colleagues feel you’re capable and competent at fulfilling your job duties or successfully managing your own workload. This creates a kind of negative feedback “loop,” where the recipient of the help is then even less likely to show gratitude to the person offering it, even further eroding the helper's sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Often the person receiving help begins “to question their own competency and feel a threat to their workplace autonomy,” Johnson said.

But, as Johnson and his fellow researchers point out, these findings seem somewhat counterintuitive for many professionals today who think offering a helping hand makes for a more productive, collaborative workplace.

Here, they point out that offering help doesn’t always lead to negative outcomes, but it all depends on the context. Help, in and of itself, is a good thing, Johnson said, but a prudent employee would be much wiser to wait until they’re asked for help, rather than offering it proactively.

“As someone who wants to help, just sit back and do your own work,” he said, “it’s best to stay in your own swim lane.” If -- and only if -- you’re asked to help out, then feel free to offer your advice, manpower, or support. According to the study, this is likely the only way to see the most positive results when you offer to help a coworker.

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