Thanks, But No Thanks: Helping Out Your Colleagues Can Hurt Your Career

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A customer service representative pauses while checking an online account. With the customer on the other side of the counter and within earshot, a “helpful” coworker asks, “How are we doing over there?” Ever experienced an annoying coworker who continuously offers unsolicited advice?

Providing unwanted help to a coworker may be one of the quickest ways to derail your career, a new study finds. You think you are just sharing what you know, but you may be seen as a show-off or know-it-all. To the recipient, unwanted advice can come off as criticism.

Michigan State University management professor Russell Johnson wanted to know more about the ways help is provided at work and how that assistance is perceived by coworkers.

“Right now, there’s a lot of stress on productivity in the workplace, and to be a real go-getter and help everyone around you,” Johnson explains in a university release. “But, it’s not necessarily the best thing when you go out looking for problems and spending time trying to fix them.”

Johnson says that there are two primary ways people help others in the workplace. They can provide either proactive or reactive help. Proactive help, like the example above, occurs when unsolicited advice is given. Reactive help happens when a coworker seeks the help or advice of another coworker.

The research team surveyed 54 employees working full-time in manufacturing, government, health care and education jobs. Participants were questioned about daily observations of helpfulness at the workplace. The survey covered a 10-day period and provided 232 examples of assessing help, receiving gratitude, perception of positive social influence and work engagement.

“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,” notes Johnson. “On the recipient side, if people are constantly coming up to me at work and asking if I want their help, it could have an impact on my esteem and become frustrating. I’m not going to feel inclined to thank the person who tried to help me because I didn’t ask for it.”

Proactive help works against both the helper and the recipient, but for different reasons, the study found.

“Being proactive can have toxic effects, especially on the helper. They walk away receiving less gratitude from the person that they’re helping, causing them to feel less motivated at work the next day. More often than not, help recipients won’t express gratitude immediately, which makes it meaningless as it relates to the helper’s actual act,” says Johnson. “As for the person receiving the unrequested help, they begin to question their own competency and feel a threat to their workplace autonomy.”

The findings, published September 3 in the journal Applied Psychology, give further credence to the old saying, “Mind your own business.” It’s not that help is bad. Certainly, be there for your teammates, but be patient and allow them to ask first.

“As someone who wants to help, just sit back and do your own work. That’s when you’ll get the most bang for your buck,” says Johnson. “As the person receiving help, you should at a minimum express gratitude – and the sooner the better. If you wait a few days, it won’t have a positive impact on the helper.”

Future research will consider what it feels like to be the receiver of assistance and how the emotions involved in those interactions shape the overall workplace atmosphere.

Interestingly, another recent study, published October 18 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, also reached the conclusion that offering help to a colleague can often backfire. This research, conducted at San Francisco State University, analyzed 142 prior studies on the subject and found that lending support to a co-worker — whether job-related or emotional — is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

With the outcome unknown, it may just be better to keep to yourself in the end, no matter now good your intentions are. The best option could be to just let your coworkers know that you’re there if they need you, rather than forcing a discussion with them.

“Before providing support, think about whether it’s needed and whether it’s wanted,” says co-author Michael Matheiu in a release. “If it’s not, maybe step back and don’t provide that.”

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