You Can Succeed At Work By Helping Others...But Don't Martyr Yourself In The Meantime

Usually, I think that if I see one more peppy article about "networking" and "leaning in" and career strategizing, I'll scream. But this one grabbed my eye: "How to Succeed Professionally by Helping Others," from The Atlantic. Its main point is supposed to be counterintuitive, in that usually we are encouraged by others or by common sense to look out for #1 in the workplace — but wouldn't it be great if helping others helped you too? That'd be like the trickle-down economics of workplace interaction: everyone allegedly wins.

Here's what writer Adam Grant, who wrote a book on the subject, has to say about being useful to others in the workplace:

Being a “giver” who enjoys helping others can be inefficient in the short run but surprisingly productive in the long run. Givers tend to start out with lower sales revenue and lower medical school grades. In sales, givers often put their customers’ needs above their own sales targets. In medicine, before big exams, givers are so busy helping their friends study that they fail to fill the holes in their own understanding. Yet after a year in sales, the highest revenue belongs to those same generous people, and by the end of medical school, the top grades belong to the students with the most passion for helping others.

But why would "givers" in particular enjoy these successes?

From a relationship perspective, givers build deeper and broader connections. When a salesperson truly cares about you, trust forms, and you’re more likely to buy, come back for repeat business, and refer new customers. From a motivation perspective, helping others enriches the meaning and purpose of our own lives, showing us that our contributions matter and energizing us to work harder, longer, and smarter. When medical students focus on helping others, they’re able to weather the slings and arrows of long hours and devastating health outcomes: they know their colleagues and patients are depending on them.

Workplace "givers" also learn more, and more quickly, than other professionals, because in the course of helping coworkers, they gain experience in other positions and with other work-relevant situations. Peachy, right?

Well, I have some reservations. Grant reports his findings about workplace givers with a causal explanation: when you give in the workplace, you build better relationships and become more motivated. But it seems to me that this is, or at least could be, exactly backwards. Why would "givers" help others in the first place? Because they've already built pre-existing relationships with those they want to help, and because they are more motivated regarding their work in general.

After that, helping coworkers could easily lead to a virtuous cycle of relationship-building and enhanced motivation. But doing some coworkers some favors is likely insufficient to, by itself, help someone unmotivated and emotionally checked-out to build working friendships and come to love their job.

And, I hate to be the cynic here, but the amateur behaviorist in me must ask: being helpful in the workplace may pay off in the long run, but is it worth it? Going way above and beyond the demands of the job, day in and day out, is a good way to definitely sacrifice your well-being in the short run, in the hopes of maybe someday being repaid, if you're lucky.

Ever notice how your dog will keep sitting on command if you only sometimes give him a treat? Psychologists have a term for this: "variable-schedule" or "intermittent" reinforcement. The idea is that organisms retain their motivation for doing an action when it's rewarded sometimes — but not always — because the times you're not rewarded, you keep thinking that treat must be just around the bend. In the long run, being a workplace "giver" tends to pay off. But hey, like that famous economist said, in the long run, we're all dead. Especially as a woman, who is possibly already overworked and expected to be super helpful and supportive all the time: do you really want to keep giving and giving and giving at the office, hoping that someday you'll finally get a pat on the head? Sheryl Sandberg would be ashamed. Go ahead and do some giving in the workplace — especially when it clearly will build relationships or facilitate learning — but stop short of making a martyr of yourself.