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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.