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When Helping Hurts the Helper

Business Research Suggests There Are Right and Wrong Ways to Offer Assistance

By Carrie Handwerker

Illustration of person climbing broken ladder as a hand adds the missing piece

Offering to help a coworker before they ask can backfire—especially if the "helper" has a higher stature on the team, according to new Maryland Smith research.

Illustration by iStock

Helping out a co-worker—hard to find fault with that, right?

In fact, depending on the source and kind of help being offered, it might be perceived more like a threat than a relief, according to new University of Maryland research.

A new paper by management and organization Assistant Professor Jennifer Carson Marr published in the Academy of Management Journal compared two kinds of helping: reactive, when someone asks for it; and anticipatory, meaning preemptive offers of help. The study by Marr and co-authors Dana Harari of Technion Israel Institute of Technology and Michael R. Parke of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is the first to compare how these two kinds of help affect the helper.

Previous workplace research has detailed the benefits of reactive assistance. “It’s really good to say yes when someone asks for your help,” said Marr. “The person who needs the help gets it, and if you help them, you are then seen as more likeable, more competent, a better performer.”

Those benefits aren’t always realized with anticipatory help, the researchers found. In fact, the opposite effect can occur when the intended recipient feels threatened and becomes less likely to accept help—even though they might need it.

And for the person offering the help? “You are not going to be seen as more likable. And you’re not going to be seen as this competent high-performing colleague just for helping.”

For people higher up on a team than the person they are trying to help—managers, team leaders or people with more seniority—the effect is exacerbated.

The researchers ran four studies: two experiments with a simulated workplace scenario, one experiment where workers reflected on their own helping experiences, and a field study with consultants at a multinational professional services firm. Each study showed that employees were more likely to view anticipatory help from higher-status coworkers as threatening and view the helper more negatively as a result.

If your boss or another team member offers you help, you might feel like it’s because you’re doing something wrong or it’s a negative reflection of your capabilities, so you don’t feel good about it, Marr said. You may not see them as genuinely wanting to help, but to correct something you’re doing wrong or challenging your position in the group.

But a subordinate offering to help a boss is unlikely to experience these negative outcomes, she said. “We argue that’s because they are not threatened by your offer to help.”

One implication is that higher-status employees just shouldn’t offer help to people before they ask—but that’s not very realistic, particularly since such help is often part of a senior person’s job responsibilities. So what can helpers do without the negative consequences?

Frame the offer like a favor that they’ll repay in the future or have already repaid, said Marr. If you have a reciprocal helping relationship with the person, make your offer part of that pattern. If you don’t, try to “rebalance the social exchange.” “That seems to mitigate this self-threat that the recipient feels and therefore mitigate the negative outcomes for the helper.”

And for the person on the receiving end of the offer of help?

Consider the true intentions of the helper, Marr said. A team member who is trying to help probably wants what’s best for the team, so don’t take it personally. And if the help is coming from your manager, remember that it’s part of their role to help.

“Accepting help is not a sign of weakness,” Marr said.

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