Maryland Smith Research / December 2, 2021

When Helping Hurts the Helpers and How to Avoid It.

Proactive Helping Can Be Seen As a Threat, Unless You Do It Right, Finds Research

When Helping Hurts the Helpers and How to Avoid It

Helping a co-worker seems like it would always be, well, helpful, right? That’s not always how it may be received, finds new research from Maryland Smith’s Jennifer Carson Marr. She says it depends on who is offering to help and what kind of help they are offering.

There are two ways to help – reactively, when someone asks for it, or before someone asks for it, called anticipatory help. That’s the kind Marr and her co-authors – Dana Harari of Technion Israel Institute of Technology, and Michael R. Parke of University of Pennsylvania Wharton School – study in this paper, published in the Academy of Management Journal. They are the first to measure anticipatory and reactive helping and compare how they affect the helper.

Previous research on helping in the workplace has detailed the benefits of stepping up when someone asks for help, called reactive helping. “It’s really good to say yes when someone asks for your help,” says Marr. “The person who needs the help gets it, and if you help them, you are then seen as more likeable, more competent, a better performer.”

But those same benefits aren’t always realized when a person offers or provides help without being asked, find the researchers. In fact, the opposite effect can occur.

Because they haven’t asked for help, the offer could trigger self-threat in the intended recipient, says Marr. And because of that, they’ll be less likely to accept the help – which is problematic, because the point is they probably need it. And for the person offering the help?

“You are not going to be seen as more likable. And you’re not going to be seen as this competent high-performing colleague just for helping.”

The relationship between the helper and the intended recipient matters a lot, says Marr. For people who have a higher status on the team than the person they are trying to help – managers, team leaders, people with more seniority – the effect is exacerbated.

The researchers ran four studies – two experiments with a simulated workplace scenario, one experiment where workers reflected on their own helping experiences, and a field study with consultants at a multinational professional services firm. All of the studies showed that employees were more likely to view anticipatory help from higher-status coworkers as threatening and view the helper more negatively as a result.

“When you are in a higher-status position, or even when you are a peer of the person you are helping anticipatorily, you are more likely to trigger self-threat in the recipient and then experience these negative outcomes for yourself as the helper,” says Marr.

If your boss or another team member offers you help, you might feel like it’s because you’re doing something wrong or it’s a negative reflection of your capabilities, so you don’t feel good about it, she says. You may not see them as genuinely wanting to help, but more as them wanting to correct something you’re doing wrong or challenging your position in the group. Those feelings of self-threat can be really powerful.

But when you are a lower-status person relative to the person you are trying to help – say, a subordinate offering to help the boss – then you don’t experience these negative outcomes, Marr says. “We argue that’s because they are not threatened by your offer to help.”

The implication, says Marr, would be that if you’re a peer or higher-status person, you just should not offer help to people before they ask you for help. But that’s not very realistic.

“In general, the people that we help the most are our peers,” she says. “And if you are a higher-status person, you not only normally have more expertise to help people – so your help would be better – but you may be in a position where helping your subordinates is part of your job.”

So what can helpers do to help without the negative consequences?

Frame the offer like a favor that they’ll repay in the future or have already paid in the past, says Marr. If you have a relationship with the person where you tend to reciprocate help, make your offer just part of the pattern. If you don’t have that kind of relationship, try to “rebalance the social exchange,” she says. “Find a way to signal this anticipatory help that you’re offering is part of a balanced exchange. That seems to mitigate this self-threat that the recipient feels and therefore mitigate the negative outcomes for the helper.”

And for the person on the receiving end of the offer of help?

It’s not a personal attack. Try and think about the true intentions of the helper, Marr says. When a team member is trying to help, they probably want what’s best for the team as a whole, so don’t take it personally. And if the help is coming from your manager, remember that it’s part of their role to help.

“It might be helpful for people to remind themselves that accepting help is not a sign of weakness,” Marr says. “In fact, because they may actually make themselves seem more competent by accepting the help.”

“In the modern workplace -- it’s virtually impossible to do things without help. Often people don’t even realize when they need help. Sometimes helpers might be able to see that others need help before those people even know themselves,” Marr says. “I do hope that at least knowing that anticipatory help can have these negative consequences, can make people think about the way that they offer help.”

Read the research, “When Helping Hurts Helpers: Anticipatory versus Reactive Helping, Helper’s Relative Status, and Recipient Self-Threat,” in the Academy of Management Journal.

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