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This is when you should help a coworker and when it can backfire

Not all support is good support. If your odds are 50/50 for being a hero or a villain, it’s best not to take the risk.

This is when you should help a coworker and when it can backfire
[Photo: Serge Kutuzov/Unsplash]

If you see a coworker struggling, your reaction might be to jump in and help. It can feel good to save the day. But while you mean well, you might want to wait. A study from San Francisco State University (SFSU) found that while we all could use a helping hand from time to time, it’s just as likely to make the situation worse as improve it.

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“It’s half and half,” says Michael Mathieu, a SFSU psychology graduate student who worked on the study with SFSU associate professor of psychology Kevin Eschleman. “Sometimes offering support makes it better, but sometimes it makes things worse.”

If your odds are 50/50 for being a hero or a villain, it’s best not to take the risk.

“Not all support is good support,” says Mathieu. “Reaching out to offer help to a coworker could end up insulting them. Or if a supervisor helps an employee with a project when they weren’t asked, it can make the employee feel incompetent.”

Support can also cause the receiver to get sidetracked. “You might give support that’s not the right type,” says Mathieu, adding that in this case you might waste your time and theirs, and damage a relationship.

Offer Help Before Giving It

Before providing support, think about whether it’s needed and whether it’s wanted, says Mathieu. “One of the most interesting things is that the availability of support–having support open to people if they need it–was considered better than actually receiving support,” he says.

In research, published in Journal of Applied Psychology, Michigan State University associate professor of management Russell Johnson found that it’s better to wait until you’re asked to help.

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“Right now, there’s a lot of stress on productivity in the workplace, and to be a real go-getter and help everyone around you,” he says. “But, it’s not necessarily the best thing when you go out looking for problems and spending time trying to fix them.”

The Other Problem With Helping Too Soon

Help comes in two kinds–proactive and reactive–and the differentiator is whether or not your assistance was requested, says Johnson.

If you’re the go-getter type, actively offering to help others, you’re being proactive. If you wait until you’re approached for help, you’re being reactive, Johnson explains.

“When people engage in proactive help, they often don’t have a clear understanding of recipients’ problems and issues, thus they receive less gratitude for it,” Johnson says. “On the recipient side, if people are constantly coming up to me at work and asking if I want their help, it could have an impact on my esteem and become frustrating. I’m not going to feel inclined to thank the person who tried to help me because I didn’t ask for it.”

Proactive help can be a lose/lose for the helper and the receiver. The receiver will be less likely to show gratitude, leaving the helper less motivated at work the next day.

“More often than not, help recipients won’t express gratitude immediately, which makes it meaningless as it relates to the helper’s actual act,” Johnson says. “As for the person receiving the unrequested help, they begin to question their own competency and feel a threat to their workplace autonomy.”

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Johnson says his research suggests that workers should not go looking for problems to solve. Helping is good … when you’re asked for it. In the meantime, mind your own business.

“As someone who wants to help, just sit back and do your own work,” he says. “That’s when you’ll get the most bang for your buck.”

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