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The Hidden Scientific Reason Why Your Coworkers Won't Help You

According to a new study, people are most reluctant to help out those with a similar role in the company. Here's why.

The Hidden Scientific Reason Why Your Coworkers Won't Help You
[Photo: Uber Images via Shuttestock]

If you need help at the office, you’ll improve your odds of finding a willing coworker if you refer to the organizational chart. Researchers from Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business found that people are most likely to help colleagues that are moderately distant in status, both up and down the corporate ladder.

The findings, which are published in Academy of Management Discoveries, offer a new way to think about how status affects workplace relationships, says Sarah Doyle, a doctoral student at the Fisher College of Business and co-author of the study. Previous studies have focused on the direction of the relationship, but status distance may be more important in some circumstances, she says.

In the first of two experiments, undergraduate students were asked to imagine that they were part of a 15-person sales team. Participants were told that one of their group members was close to securing a large account and was running short on time; they were asked if they would be willing to provide help. Some participants were told that the person asking for help was either similar to them in status, others were told that the person had a moderate status difference, and others were told there was a larger status difference. Participants were most likely to say they would help a team member who was moderately different from them in status.

The second experiment was conducted with employees of a large call center. Each employee received a detailed sales report and could compare their own results to other members of their team. While they worked separately in cubicles, they were encouraged to help each other and answer questions. Researchers found that workers were most helpful to teammates who had a moderate distance in sales.

"People who are closest to you in status pose the greatest threat," says Doyle. "If you help these individuals perform better or do better, they could potentially surpass you or widen the gap between your positions, making it more difficult for you to pass them. On the other side, people who are far above or below you in status could require a lot more time and effort to help, which could hurt your own job performance."

The sweet spot is people who are far enough away where cooperative work is possible and the potential threat is low, says Doyle. "Those colleagues who are moderately distant don't pose much of a threat and offer the best opportunity for workers to demonstrate their willingness to cooperate with their teammates," she says.

The results of the study don't suggest that most people regularly refuse requests for assistance from their coworkers, said Robert Lount, OSU associate professor of management and human resources and co-author of the study. "We found that 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," he writes.

What This Means for Leaders

If you are assigning people to train others or to work in pairs, Doyle says the study findings could be helpful. "It’s important to recognize where the pairs fall in the hierarchy," she says. "You want to group people who aren’t too close in status, managing the distance between people so it encourages them to work together."

For example, avoid assigning the most recently hired employee to train the newcomer. "If that relative newcomer is worried about his or her status in the organization, they may be less than helpful with this new person who could surpass them," writes Lount. "Someone who is moderately successful, but not the top performer on the team, might be the most willing to help."

The study could also be helpful to organizations that view hierarchy as a negative, says Doyle. "A lot of companies are moving to a flatter structure, but this research speaks to the idea that maybe hierarchy is not a black and white concept," she says. "The study suggests that hierarchy might be more complex than assumed. Managers have to consider how status distance plays a role in how well their corporate hierarchies work."

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