Home All Why Be “Prosocial” at Work?

Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin are the authors of the book Profit From the Positive. Articles written jointly by Margaret and Senia are here.

Margaret Greenberg, MAPP '06, founded The Greenberg Group, an organizational effectiveness consulting practice, in 1997. Margaret specializes in coaching executives and their teams using a strengths-based approach. Full bio. Her solo articles are here.

Senia Maymin, MAPP '06 is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio. Her solo articles are here, and her articles with Kathryn Britton are here.

When Senia was completing her MBA at Stanford, the professor for her Human Resources class strongly argued that one of the most poisonous sentences in the workplace is “It’s not my job.” Accordng to Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, businesses need employees who reach across department boundaries to help others solve problems.

Antisocial versus Prosocial Motivation

Contrast an employee who replies to a request for help with, “It’s not my job,” to one who says, “Sure, how can I help you?” Better yet, how about an employee who offers help even before being asked? We’re all familiar with the term antisocial, but you may not be familiar with the term prosocial. What does it mean?

First, let’s be clear what it doesn’t mean. Prosocial doesn’t mean that you’re hanging out in the break-room all day long socializing with your co-workers. Remember that motivation is the desire to take action and that prosocial means for the benefit of others. Hence, according to Wharton Professor Adam Grant and PhD candidate Justin Berg, prosocial motivation means taking action for the benefit of others or with the intention of helping others.

How Helping Others Helps You

Many of us were taught that you had to be competitive rather than collaborative to get ahead and that you have to focus on your own work rather than on helping others with theirs. Perhaps surprisingly, there are benefits to helping others according to Grant and Berg’s overview of the research.

First, picture our client, senior manager Kathy, at work. Kathy is naturally drawn to helping others, and she has unexpectedly found over the years that when she helps others, it tends to make her more proactive at work in general. She starts to become more interested in taking greater initiative, she works harder on meaningful tasks, and she becomes more open to negative feedback, a critical skill for managers.

Second, in studies of firefighters and fundraisers, Professor Grant found that when people “want to help” rather than feel that they “have to help,” they work harder, have better performance, and have greater productivity. Who wouldn’t want such results at their job?

Third, prosocial motivation is tied to creativity. Wanting to take actions to help others leads employees to be better at taking other people’s perspectives. Such employees can see in advance what is valuable about an idea from another’s point of view. Thus, prosocially motivated employees are better at translating new ideas into useful, creative applications for others.

Finally, employees report that helping someone else makes them feel really good, makes them glad to uphold a moral principle, and makes them pleased to strengthen their relationship with their team.

At Zappos, IBM, and Whole Foods, Helping Others is Part of the Culture

At Zappos, one of the ten company values is to build a positive team where helping one another is the norm. Zappos describes on its website, “We watch out for each other, care for each other…. We work together, but we also play together. Our bonds go far beyond the typical co-worker relationships found at most other companies.”

Similarly, at IBM, former CEO Sam Palmisano describes that to be a leader in innovation, IBM employees have to put the interests of the company ahead of the interests of individuals. Palmisano said in an interview, “You get people more excited because they can contribute versus an individual trying to take all the bows for the team… I actually think it’s a more successful product at the end of the day.”

Finally, Whole Foods is a paragon of teamwork. Here is an example highlighted in a Fast Company article. Hiring is done by department teams, such as the produce team, the meat team, and the cheese team. There is a 30-day employee trial period, after which two-thirds of the team needs to actively support the new employee in order to retain him. As an example, at one Whole Foods market, a new employee did not pass the trial period because he had been warned several times by his fellow employees not to stand around with his hands in his pockets and leaning against the counters. Although they tried to help the new hire, when their advice wasn’t heeded, the Whole Foods employees knew he wouldn’t be a good fit with their culture.

How to Help Successfully

Maybe you already help others. It comes to you naturally. It’s who you are. Or maybe being prosocially motivated is a new muscle you want to flex. In either case, here are a few things to keep in mind so your helping doesn’t backfire on you:

  1. Do no harm…to yourself. Don’t help others at the cost of harming yourself. One of our clients, Michelle, was so helpful to others on her team that she often put aside her own work. What happened? While Michelle still met her own deadlines, it was at a huge personal cost. She was often the last to leave the office at the end of the day and rarely got home in time for dinner with her family. You can be prosocial and be self-interested at the same time. This is a critical finding in the research.
  2. Replace “I should” with “I want.” Aim to really WANT to help others; don’t just help because you feel that you should. Those that feel that they should help don’t experience the same benefits in terms of productivity, performance, or persistence. We often start our coaching sessions with this question: what’s the best thing that has happened since the last time we talked? You might think the most common answer would be something the client achieved or earned. Wrong. More often our clients share a story where they helped a colleague, client, or co-worker. It made them feel good to do so. Whatever advice in this column you find useful, make sure that you believe it for yourself before you jump in. We do not want to make a “help others” robot out of you.
  3. Do good AND look good. Doing good and looking good are not mutually exclusive. They do not need to be in conflict. In fact, employees who want to both look good and do good typically offer more help, are more courteous, and take more initiative. So don’t worry about whether your helpful nature makes you look good. Be your wonderful, authentic self.

In sum, when you are prosocially motivated, you take more initiative and you’re more productive. Additionally, you’re in good company with the likes of Zappos, IBM, and Whole Foods when you help others. You’ve heard of “simple acts of kindness.” This week, try “simple acts of helping” and see if you reap the same rewards that research shows.

Author’s Note from Margaret H. Greenberg and Senia Maymin, PhD: We are organizational consultants and executive coaches to companies including Aetna, Google, and Intel. Our book, Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business is a practical guide of over thirty tools that can be applied in business as well as everyday life. Connect with us at Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @profitbook.

Here’s our simple act of helping for today: We want you to know that Profit from the Positive has been selected to be the Amazon Daily Kindle deal on May 13. You can purchase the kindle version for $1.99 on this day only.

Link to the May 13 Amazon Daily Kindle deal



Much of the research in this column is based on this chapter:

Grant, A. M., & Berg, J. M. (2011). Prosocial motivation at work: When, why, and how making a difference makes a difference. Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship, 28-44.

Greenberg, M. H. & Maymin, S. (2013). Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. McGraw Hill. Ebook link.

Fishman, C. (1996). Whole Foods is all teams. Fast Company.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Helping hand courtesy of Jill Clardy
Whole Foods teamwork courtesy of .michael.newman.
Working together courtesy of cindy47452

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Seph Fontane Pennock 13 May 2014 - 1:59 am

Wow, very interesting material Margaret and Senia! I’ll order the book right away.

At our Dutch startup company, I run the customer support department and have found out that being ‘prosocial’ towards employees, colleagues and customers is key when it comes to happiness, productivity and a more positive working environment. Especially our ‘proactive’ support’, where we offer to help clients free of charge we think might benefit from our help at that point, is a good example of this. ‘Delivering Happiness’ is required reading of course, but we might add ‘Profit from the Positive’ to the list as well. 🙂

I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve finished the book.


Margaret Greenberg 13 May 2014 - 7:25 pm

Thank you Seph for your positive feedback! You are spot on and now we have the data to prove it. You’ll be happy to see that Tony Hsieh, author of Delivering on Happiness and CEO of Zappos.com endorsed our book and we interviewed his HR manager/head of Zappos University. Can’t wait to hear what you think of PFTP. “Tell us your PFTP Story” can be found on our book website.

BTW – Will you be at the International Coach Federation’s Global European Conference in Sweden in Sept? I’ll be giving a talk called “Profit from the “Positive: 4 Tools for the Coaches Toolkit”.

Amanda Horne 13 May 2014 - 10:52 pm

Hi Margaret and Senia – we can’t have enough articles like this, especially the practical ideas you include in your article, together with stories from organisations. Perhaps the old models of good teamwork should be updated to include the research on pro-social motivation.

On PPND last year, we looked at the giver/taker/matcher categories from Adam Grant’s work:

Giving: Pro-social Motivation at Work – https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/amanda-horne/2013070426580

Give and Take (Book Review) – https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/pat-schwartz/2013061826472


Judy Krings 14 May 2014 - 12:00 pm

Chris Peterson would be so very proud of both of you for writing a relevant and timely article. So many people I coach complain about their corporate culture. “other People Matter. Period.” Thank you, Chris, and you two positive psychology movers and shakers for a right on article.

Margaret Greenberg 15 May 2014 - 9:16 am

I agree with you Amanda — the old models of teamwork definitely need some updating to include more cross-functional collaboration given the complexity and matrixed structures of organizations these days. BTW – It was your PPND article last summer and Pat Schwartz’s that first turned me onto Adam’s book – thank you!

Margaret Greenberg 15 May 2014 - 9:23 am

Thank you Judy! Chris Peterson was actually my Capstone advisor back in 2005-2006 when I was in MAPP. He encouraged Dana Arakawa and me to contribute to the emerging field of positive psychology by conducting a research study after taking his Research Methods course. At the time, a research study seemed like a daunting task, but he coached us all along the way. Yes, other people do indeed matter!

PS – When Senia and I conduct workshops, webinars, keynotes, etc. we always include a slide of a baby with our book — our nod to Chris who always slipped in a “baby” slide to make us smile.

Judy Krings 15 May 2014 - 9:55 am

OMG, Margaret! Lucky you and lucky Chris Peterson, your mentor. I can only dream about what you learned from Chris. Talk about a legacy of love, too. I am so happy for you. I was touched almost to tears. Chris would be so uber proud of you paying PP forward. I am so grateful you stretched your rubber band of strengths to do that research!

Margaret Greenberg 16 May 2014 - 6:29 am

Wow…what a beautiful note Judy to start my day! Yes, we all learned a lot from Chris and keep learning in his honor. “Stretch your rubber band of strengths” — love this! May I quote you? This would make a great PPT slide for our Strengths workshops.

Judy Krings 16 May 2014 - 4:36 pm

You are surely welcomed, Margaret. Of course you can quote me ANYTIME, and I am very honored. Make a slide and I will love that you are paying Chris’ love forward. “Sharing is caring, because ‘other people matter.'”

The more we add our uniquely delicious 24-strengths frosting to our cakes in life, the more we savor!

Margaret Greenberg 20 May 2014 - 6:02 pm

Judy, you have such a way with words! I think I want to quote this, too! I really hope we get to meet one day.

Judy Krings 21 May 2014 - 4:20 am

You are a joy, Margaret. Thanks for your kind words that added sparklers of light to my universe. We will both keep powering up positivity. I, too, shall look forward to that day we meet. Bless you always.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com