Why you shouldn’t be too quick to assist your coworkers

Research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology examines the two types of aid common in most offices: reactive and proactive.

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After reviewing responses from 54 employees, between the ages of 21 and 60, a  recent workplace study suggests those that offer aid without request are less likely to receive gratitude from their colleagues.


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The two kinds of workplace aid

Research published in Journal Of Applied Psychology lead by author Russell Johnson, who is also an associate professor at the department of management, examines the two types of aid common in most offices: reactive and proactive.

Natural go-getters that make a point to check on everyone in their office and offer assistance whenever and however they can are known as proactive helpers. While employees that are willing to help others, but typically only do so upon request are called reactive helpers.

“What we found was that on the helper side, 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 said

The research additionally highlights another potential problem with unsolicited intervention and that is its effect on performance esteem. Coworkers offered assistance they didn’t ask for will not only feel less grateful for it, the gesture of implying incompetence is often irking, which might in turn breed unproductively.  Both the helper and the helped leave the situation with lower confidence.

Johnson continues: “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.”

Volunteering help, even with the best of intentions generally seems to be toxic to work culture, but it is important to establish yourself as a resource for your colleagues. The key is to be sharply aware of the line between being helpful and condescending.

Helpful tips on how to truly be helpful

Author Naomi Karten has quite a bit to say on the topic. A piece she penned published in Techwell, provides some helpful tips about being helpful.

She stresses how important it is to be specific when offering assistance. Knowing exactly what it is your coworker needs will ensure you don’t over help.

Karten writes: “Guard against taking over the situation or treating the recipient of your help in a patronizing way. Instead, offer some assistance and then see if more is needed. Try to avoid creating the impression that it’s a quid pro quo—that is, don’t make it seem as if you’re doing someone else a favor only so that they’ll then do one for you.”

A proactive attitude is great for social climate, as long as its coupled with accountability and awareness.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.