Why you shouldn’t offer to help your colleagues unless they ask for it

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Moya Crockett
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Here’s a situation where the maxim ‘stay in your lane’ is accurate. 

Picture the scene. You’re at work when you sense that one of your colleagues is struggling with a professional task. They haven’t made a fuss about it, but you nevertheless suspect they could do with a hand. What do you do?

If your answer was a Hermione Granger-esque ‘ask if they need any help, of course!’, you might want to keep that impulse in check. Because according to a new study, offering to assist co-workers who haven’t actually asked for support is a sure-fire way to create distance between you.

Russell Johnson, a professor of management at Michigan State University, set out to examine the different ways people help one another in the workplace and how that help is received. After surveying more than 50 employees in a range of industries including government, healthcare and education, he concluded that it’s generally more useful for people to keep their professional expertise to themselves – unless or until they are asked to share it.

Johnson’s research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, suggests there are significant benefits to ‘staying in your own lane’ in the workplace.

“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.”

If Colin from accounts asked her if she needed a hand one more time… 

There are two basic ways people help one another in the workplace: proactive help, where a person goes out of their way to actively offer to support others, and reactive help, where an employee responds to a co-worker’s request for assistance.

Johnson explains that while proactive help might seem like a good thing, it can often have a “toxic” effect that results in confusion and irritation on both sides.

“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.

“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.”

Giving help when someone asks for it is a kind and generous thing 

Overall, offering proactive help can result in the helper feel unappreciated – while the person being helped experiences a knock to their self-esteem. Johnson’s research suggests that proactive helpers may feel less motivated at work if they don’t receive what they perceive as an appropriate amount of gratitude for their assistance.

The person being offered unsolicited aid, in contrast, is likely to “begin to question their own competency and feel a threat to their workplace autonomy”.

Of course, different rules may apply if you’re offering to help someone directly subordinate to you, where you have a responsibility to make sure they’re feeling happy and productive in their work. But when it comes to colleagues who are on a similar level to you in the workplace, or junior co-workers who you don’t personally manage, step back and let them come to you with their problems.

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

“As the person receiving help, you should at a minimum express gratitude – and the sooner the better.”

Images: Getty Images, Kobu Agency/Unsplash