Helping others is hard to incentivise, but an important part of work | Careers

Despite dramatic portrayals of ambitious business people stabbing each other in the back to get ahead, and the growing trend of divisive and individualistic politics in many parts of the world, most of the progress that we make at work and in wider society relies on people helping each other out.

In the careers section of Chemistry World recently, we’ve celebrated some people who have made helping others a focal point of their working life. For Emanuel Wallace, his desire to help students who were struggling with a lack of practical lessons during Covid-19 lockdowns led to a new career as the content creator Big Manny. And the three researchers featured in Victoria Atkinson’s article created websites to share their knowledge about lab safety, organic chemistry techniques and computational skills more widely, to benefit the whole chemistry community.

Of equal importance to big projects like these are the small helpful actions that go on every day in the workplace. The postdoc who shows you how to set up a reaction; the colleague who checks over a report you’ve written; the technician who helps a student work out why an experiment has failed.

I hope all these people get the appreciation and gratitude they deserve. There are suggestions that being helpful at work brings other benefits too. A meta-analysis published in Psychological Bulletin in 2022 suggests that people who are motivated to help others perform better in their jobs and have better wellbeing. Importantly, this effect was strongest when help was given voluntarily – if company culture decrees that helping others is expected, the positive effects are reduced.

So is helping someone its own reward, or should employers do more to acknowledge and compensate helpful behaviour? Help is probably under-recognised in ways that help career progression – job applications and appraisal forms focus more on your achievements, without much opportunity to reflect on the assistance you’ve given others. Gaining a reputation for being helpful might help you progress in your workplace, but will often not be visible if you apply for a job outside your network of contacts.

But more formal recognition is difficult to implement fairly. Not everyone is able to help others – anything from high workloads to forms of neurodivergence can make it hard for people to spontaneously volunteer for things. Setting targets for how much employees should help others also risks rewarding unwanted assistance – and there’s enough mansplaining going around already.

Helpfulness is something you can’t incentivise, but a helpful culture is more likely to arise in an environment where assistance is recognised and treated with gratitude. Such a culture can’t be established unless the managers and executives at the top of the chain lead by example. However, there is at least one thing we can all do: thank all the people who help us, and make sure they know they’re appreciated for all that they do.

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