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Offering advice to co-workers is best when asked

New research suggests keeping to yourself at work until called on for assistance

Photo (c) PeopleImages - Getty Images
For most consumers, the office is where they spend a significant portion of the day. Interacting with co-workers can not only build friendships, but many believe it can help increase productivity in the workplace.

However, based on a new study conducted by researchers from Michigan State University, offering expertise or advice to co-workers may only prove to be beneficial when you’re asked for it.

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

Proactive vs reactive help

To test the effects of helping in the workplace, Johnson and his team evaluated 54 employees across various industries for 10 days. The goal was to see how helping was perceived in the work environment, what effect it had on work, and whether there was a social impact.

Helping was broken down into two categories: proactive or reactive. Those offering proactive help went out of their way -- unasked -- to offer assistance or guidance. Those offering reactive help did the opposite; they waited until asked by a co-worker to offer help.

After studying the employees’ responses, Johnson found that proactive help isn’t as helpful as many intend it to be -- for both the helper and the recipient of the help. According to Johnson, employees that receive help unprovoked may start to question their self-esteem and not feel gratitude towards the co-worker that helped them. Proactive helpers may not be fully aware of what their co-worker really needs and may not feel as satisfied in the long-term.

“Being proactive can have toxic effects, especially on the helper,” Johnson explains. “They walk away receiving less gratitude from the person that they’re helping, causing them to feel less motivated at work the next day...As for the person receiving the unrequested help, they begin to question their own competency and feel a threat to their workplace autonomy.”

Johnson suggests that help in the workplace can be beneficial for both parties, as long as the help is requested first.

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

Johnson also notes that the exchange elicits the most positive reaction from both parties when the helper feels gratitude for having helped someone in need. Johnson believes that it’s never too soon to express gratitude for receiving help, as this can only increase the positive experience for the helper.

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