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How helping others makes it easier to accept help yourself

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Back in 2013 Adam Grant brought niceness to wider attention with the publication of his book Give and Take.  His book chronicled how people who would give unreservedly would, in the long term, tend to do well in life.

A good example he gives is from a study into student behavior at school.  The study found that students with a disposition towards giving and helping others would often struggle in their first year.  They would be spending time helping others, and so their own studies would suffer as a result.

This was only a short-term deficit however, as by the second year the givers had edged slightly ahead of their peers, and by the third year they were striding clear of the pack in terms of their performance in class.

Giving and receiving

So giving help to others is clearly effective, especially in the long-term.  A recent study sheds some light on just why that is.

The research saw participants tasked with completing a number of math based puzzles.  If they were struggling at all, help was available via cards written by fellow students who were experienced at the task at hand.

Some of the cards provided a full solution to the challenge, others merely provided hints to help the student on their way.

This distinction is important.  When a solution is given, it is known as ‘dependency orientated’, so the helper takes control and does things for the recipient.  People who receive this form of help tend to regard themselves as less able and even less respected, which tends to result in them asking for help less in future.

The other form of help however, known as ‘autonomy orientated’, supports a distinct shift in mindset.  In these kind of scenarios, the helper is perceived as being more like the recipient.  What’s more, they’re also perceived as being better qualified and even more well intentioned.

The researchers conducted a second experiment whereby participants were again tasked with solving a puzzle, only this time they were also asked to provide their own help cards for the puzzles they had answered correctly.  In other words, they were asked to give back and help future students.

This shift from receiver to helper triggered a surge in confidence amongst the participants, but also a greater affinity with the people that had tried to help them previously.

Interestingly, the benefits of helping others was particularly pronounced for those who had previously received dependency type help themselves.  They received a particular boost in their confidence, and even their feelings towards the person that had helped them previously.

All it seemed to take was for them to take their own place in the ‘chain of help’ to instill a feeling of empowerment within them.

As an indication of the power of culture, it also emerged that participants were very relaxed about receiving help themselves when they knew in advance that they would be helping others later on.

It really does underline the value inherent in having a culture whereby employees feel able to give and support one another, and indeed have the time and freedom to do so.

In a previous post I outlined 7 ways that you can help to build such a giving culture, which may be useful here.

7 ways to encourage a giving culture

  1. Focus on the task – the last 20/30 years have seen big changes in how tasks are designed.  Various process improvement methodologies have evolved to ensure that tasks are performed in an optimum way.  If your organization makes use of such methodologies, make sure you include giving, knowledge sharing and collaboration in them.  Ask yourself how the work flow would need to change to encourage more giving behavior.
  2. Focus on the people – it is very easy to place undue emphasis on the people element of change, with the false assumption that if you could only change your team, everything would magically fall into place.  Whilst getting the right people on board is important, there is a great deal of psychological research showing that our behavior is influenced as much by the situations we find ourselves in as the kind of people we are.  Think about the kind of skills required of your team in order to encourage knowledge sharing.
  3. Focus on the rewards – whilst rewards sound like a purely positive thing, they can also include punishments.  What happens to people in your organization when they behave the way you want, and of course what happens when they don’t?  Remember that rewards don’t have to be monetary.  Gamification has shown that it too has a role in reinforcing the right kind of behaviors.  You will need to align your monetary and non-monetary rewards however to truly encourage a sharing culture.
  4. Focus on measurement – measurement is rightly important, and the saying goes that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  What you choose to measure also sends a strong message to employees about what you regard as important.  This, coupled with the rewards you offer for good result, send frequent signals to employees about what matters.  Use it wisely.
  5. Focus on information – think also about the kind of information people need in order to share wisely.  In this instance employees will need to know both the problems their peers are having, and also the right people to ask if they themselves have a problem.  You will also need to install strong and frequent feedback so that employees know how well they’re performing.
  6. Focus on organization – most organizations have an org chart that outlines how the company is structured.  If you’re trying to encourage people to share knowledge, then it’s very likely that this will mean knowledge flowing across organizational lines.  How will this impact upon the make-up of teams within your organization?  Do you have the kind of flexibility that promotes this behavior?
  7. Focus on decision making – if that knowledge is flowing, what impact will it have on who and when decisions are made?  How will this impact upon the traditional leader/follower make up of teams?

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