Helping co-workers: How helpful is it, really?

Studies suggest there may be a point at which giving assistance becomes detrimental.

helping coworkers
Credit: Alexis Brown

Altruism is a great thing. Helping out our fellow human beings is what keeps the great wheels of society turning.

But can we be too helpful? Is there a point at which giving assistance becomes detrimental, both to the party requesting help and to the party giving it?

Surveys and studies conducted over the past few years seem to indicate there is such a point, and it might be easier to reach than we suspected.

Let’s take a serious look at helping out our co-workers. We’re not here to suggest you stop lending a hand where it’s needed — far from it! But it’s definitely worth your while to consider the frequency with which you render that help — and the negative effects it might be having, even when your intentions are as pure as the driven snow.

Let’s crunch the numbers

None of what we’ll be discussing will have the weight it’s due without delving into some empirical data first. So what have recent studies uncovered about helpfulness in the workplace?

In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Michigan State University researchers surveyed 68 people over the course of 15 work days, and their findings suggest that the altruistic among us should exercise caution before agreeing to help co-workers, according to Michigan State's MSU Today website. The study participants, who work in a number of dissimilar industries, filled out surveys that asked questions such as “Today, I went out of my way to help co-workers who asked for my help” and also measured their feelings of “depletion.” The results suggest that helping others can leave us feeling depleted and less effective at work.

If you can’t do it well, don’t do it at all

Not everybody is a born teacher. In fact, more than a few of us can probably testify to this with the help of some unpleasant grade school memories. The lesson here is to not go out of your way to teach if you don’t have a teacher’s temperament.

Something that appears obvious to you may not be obvious to your co-workers. As a result, you might unkowingly take a condescending or impatient tone when you're just trying to be helpful by pointing something out to a colleague. If you catch yourself doing this — if you have a tendency to talk down to people, even while you’re helping them — you need to revisit your motivations and possibly stop trying to help altogether.

Don’t make your life harder than it needs to be

If you’re gainfully employed, you’re probably an adult and your co-workers are probably adults, and adults should know how to learn on their own. Besides possibly stunting the natural growth process of the people you work with, being a little too helpful also raises the risk of making your life harder than it needs to be. You’ll run yourself ragged, blast through your own workday and potentially fall behind on your own responsibilities.

Really take stock of the amount of time you’re spending on your work versus helping your co-workers with theirs. Don’t think for a moment that there can be an equitable balance here — you obviously need to prioritize your responsibilities over theirs.

The point is, if the demands on your time are getting out of control, it’s time to politely back off and let people learn on their own.

So how often should you help, really?

With the data and the caveats out of the way, you’ve probably inched toward closure on the question posed in the title: Just how often should I help the people I work with?

The answer is, of course, deceptively simple: You should help out as much as you can without negatively affecting your own sanity and without stunting your co-workers’ growth.

As he so often does, Aristotle has some sage words of wisdom on this exact subject:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Is that a paradox? Maybe it is. But it makes a lot of sense — sense that’s backed up by science. “Experiential learning” refers to precisely this: the act of “learning through reflection on doing.” And by doing something for somebody else, you’re robbing them of that wealth of experiential, well, experience.

Of course, how you help is also of great significance. If a child asked for your help with a math problem, you wouldn’t dream of just banging out the equation and handing the answer to him. He'd be back the next day with another head-scratcher. No, the only responsible thing to do is to teach the child how to find the answer on his own.

Don’t hand out answers — hand out a map and compass.

It’s the whole “teaching a man to fish” thing. Are we mixing our metaphors? That’s fine — you probably get the point.

Lifelong learners

Life on this planet is full of opportunities to learn new things and have brand-new experiences. In a way, teaching people things prescribes knowledge while at the same time robbing them of the pursuit of knowledge.

That might sound cynical, but consider for a moment how many school students decide they hate even the idea of learning new things. Learning can be hard, but it’s made delicious again by being pursued by choice.

So don’t give lectures in the workplace — drop breadcrumbs instead. If you know something someone else does not, by all means give them a hand, but don’t prescribe or evangelize. Help them get back in touch with the joy of discovery.

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