Many people like to help co-workers, but receiving help is not always a positive experience. People sometimes worry about being seen as incompetent for needing help and this is likely to have a significant impact on their subsequent performance. Young Eun Lee writes that women may be more likely to think this way. She says the onus is on organisations, not women employees, to dispel these myths.
If one of your coworkers needed assistance with a task, it’s likely that you would go out of your way to help them. Being helpful tends to be a critical virtue in general, and a fixture of modern workplaces specifically. For this reason, it is not hyperbole to say that hundreds of papers have been written trying to understand which employees are most likely to help their coworkers, why they engage in that help, and when it is more or less likely to occur.
Yet for every act of help, there is by definition a recipient. And what is interesting is that when scholars have examined how people feel about receiving help, the answer is sometimes quite negative. In some cases, help recipients worry about being seen as incompetent and are left wondering why they needed help in the first place. For instance, was a colleague simply being helpful, or did they think you couldn’t handle the job? Did they want to teach you something, or did they assume you needed to be shown what to do? When we dug into the literature, we found that research was silent on the answer to these questions. This was quite surprising because how people feel about receiving help is likely to have a significant impact on their subsequent performance.
In our study, we set out to find an answer to this question. To do so, we focused on specific aspects of the helping episode. To illustrate, consider the following:
Imagine a situation where a coworker is helping you with your work task. The helper takes the time to sit down with you and guide you through the task in a detailed manner. This is an interactive experience where you have a chance to ask questions, practice, and build the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish the task in the future. We label this type of help as empowering help. Importantly, receiving this type of help was positive, as recipients felt more competent, which allowed them to better excel at work (i.e., making more progress on work goals, enacting more help towards others [akin to a “helping spiral], and withdrawing from work less).
Yet there is an alternate scenario that is less straightforward. Imagine a similar situation as above, but instead of the helper guiding you through the task in a collaborative and interactive manner, your coworker does the work for you. We label this type of help as non-empowering. On the one hand, the task still got done, and you can certainly learn by watching or reverse-engineering the steps. Yet, on the other hand, you might also question why your coworker didn’t take the time to help you learn the necessary skills. After all, helping is costly and people tend to prioritise those whom they see as capable and valuable. Does receiving this type of help suggest that your coworker might not think highly of you?
Unfortunately, our findings suggest that women may be more likely to think this way. That is, we found that while men also received a competence boost from receiving non-empowering help, women did not. Such findings are consistent with prior work that has found that women may be more likely to interpret the receipt of this type of help as negative and potentially undermining (even if that is not actually the case). This could be due to the fact that women are subject to negative stereotypes both in the workplace and in society generally, and are well aware of them. This means that receiving non-empowering help—help that is not empowering or growth-promoting—may be more problematic for women as they grapple with these difficult stereotypes at work. Such findings like ours are problematic, as over time, something as commonplace as receiving help could inadvertently be putting women at a disadvantage compared to men at work.
This situation is quite concerning. Thus, what can organisations do to promote help that renders positive outcomes? Given the myriad challenges going on in modern organisations, we suspect that thinking about ways to help others may not always be top of mind for managers, and the employees they are supervising. Yet, our research suggests that one very direct way in which this situation can be alleviated is by encouraging employees to be empowering when helping coworkers—taking the time necessary to teach recipients the skills that they are lacking. Of course, organisations must also afford employees the time to provide such help. Work environments in which there is no slack time and employees are overworked and burnt out are unlikely to be conducive to cultivating empowering help.
Another option is for managers to create a workplace in which the negative stereotypes that are at the heart of the negative effects of non-empowering help do not affect women. To that end, managers should emphasise that all employees are valued and seek to dispel any negative stereotypes that suggest women might not be as capable compared to men. The hope is that in such a workplace, women would be less likely to make connections between receiving non-empowering help and negative stereotypes. To be clear, our position is that the onus is on organisations—not the women themselves—to dispel these myths.
Finally, when non-empowering help does occur, it is likely to be useful for employees to think about the benefits associated with this help. The more employees see all forms of helping as a learning opportunity versus a threat, the better the benefits are likely to be. Though we did not test this idea directly, we see this as a clear direction to build upon our work. Combined, offering empowering help whenever possible and fostering a workplace culture conducive to providing such help can benefit all employees, and not just a select few.
- This blog post is based on When, why, and for whom is receiving help actually helpful? Differential effects of receiving empowering and nonempowering help based on recipient gender, by
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
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