Say that three of your coworkers need help with different projects. One of them is a well-respected veteran in another department, another is the assistant manager of a team that works closely with yours now and then, and the third is someone on your own team who was hired around the same time as you and works in the same role. Which one do you help?
According to researchers at Ohio State University, you’re more likely to lend a hand to the second of the three. A recent study found that our inclination to collaborate with colleagues doesn’t just come down to who we happen to like or whose role is most senior to our own.
Instead, it’s all about a subtler, more subjective quality the researchers call “status”–which is how we weigh both of those factors alongside interpersonal politics and social cues, like relative tenure on the job and even how we perceive our own position in the workplace.
Researchers found that we’re more likely to assist coworkers who we believe sit at a “moderate” remove from our own status in our organization. Subconsciously, we feel that’s safest: It lets us show our own value as a team player without putting our own place in the unofficial company hierarchy at risk. But colleagues with much greater, much less, or too similar a status to our own aren’t as likely to receive our help.
The study looked at these comparative status relationships and identified this sweet spot; “moderate status distance” basically refers to the coworkers who we feel are neither too similar nor too dissimilar from us.
What’s useful about this definition is that it goes beyond the “org chart” on the one hand and strictly social relationships on the other, anchoring both to our sense of self at work. For example, someone hired around the same time as you but working in a different department, possibly at a slightly higher or slightly lower level, would have a “moderately” different status than yours.
Sarah Doyle, a PhD student at OSU’s Fisher College of Business, led two related studies to understand how the nuances of status dictate collaborative behavior. The first was a thought experiment that involved asking more than 260 college undergraduates to imagine they were part of large work groups attempting to make sales for their organization. Participants were told that someone else in their group was close to making a big sale, and researchers varied the description of that person to reflect the spectrum of status similarities (similar, very dissimilar, or neither).
When asked if they would help the coworker, participants were most likely to say they would if the coworker’s status was moderately different from their own. That led Doyle and her colleagues to test that finding in the field. They went to a large customer call center, where employees were highly aware of their individual statuses relative to their coworkers’, thanks to monthly reports that ranked employees by the sales they made. The call center also encouraged employees to help one another out, and researchers observed that employees would often ask coworkers for help answering questions.
The researchers then asked 170 of the employees to list which of their coworkers came to them most often for help and which they themselves relied on for support. Here, too, it turned out that employees were most helpful to the coworkers who ranked at moderate status distances from their own with respect to the center’s sale rankings.
This would seem to suggest a sprawling web of unspoken alliances, all driven by self-interest. But the study’s co-author Robert Lount clarifies on OSU’s website that it isn’t quite that Machiavellian. “People are generally willing to lend a hand. It is not a story of withholding assistance. It is more about who are you most likely to go out of your way to help.”
For example, if you know one of your coworkers has a full schedule and just got assigned another big project, your willingness to freely offer your help might subconsciously hinge on that person’s status relative to your own. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll intentionally leave someone high and dry, believing it’ll benefit you.
But as Doyle points out, this finding may shed light on how organizational hierarchies alternately help and hinder collaboration. “Someone near you in status poses more of a threat,” she suggests. “The help you provide could help them pass you in status, or make it more difficult for you to pass them.”
If assisting someone close in status seems risky, then the reason we’re no less likely to help out someone of a significantly different status may come down to simple efficiency: If you try to help a colleague who’s either far below or far above your own position, it’s hard to see what you’ll gain. You risk taking extra time and effort to lend a hand, which your other coworkers or, worse, your boss may consider a waste of time.
In a certain light, at least, this might indeed be rooted in competition as well. After all, if your fellow team members or managers see you busy helping someone far afield in the company, you may look like less of a team player, which could damage your own standing closer to home, where it counts.
Purposefully or otherwise, competition is an ingrained part of our working lives–and often that’s a good thing. One way to channel it into productive uses may be to let employees grow horizontally, by learning new skills that complement their primary career objectives even if they don’t directly advance them. That way, each employee gets a chance to pursue what interests them individually, minimizing competition from team members trying to one-up each other on the exact same turf.
Instead, everyone brings their own skills to the table, and your coworkers’ successes don’t mean your inevitable failure. Not only can everyone raise their own status simultaneously, the differentiation that it creates between one employee and the next helps ensure they’re neither too close nor too far apart–but just right for pitching in.
William Craig is the founder and president of WebpageFX. He writes about company culture and entrepreneurship for Forbes and Fortune.