Skip to Content

Being a Giver in the Workplace - Does a desire to help others at work make you better or worse off?

By Jordan Nielsen

Do nice people really finish last? And what exactly does it mean to be “nice” anyway? For quite a long time, people have debated whether a desire to help others — prosocial motivation — is an asset in the workplace, or a liability.

Even organizational researchers who study this for a living have not escaped the debate, despite hundreds of studies on the matter. On the one hand, studies show that a motivation to help others often leads to a sense of meaning and significance in the workplace, which fulfills important psychological needs and leads them to give high levels of effort. On the other hand, studies show that this same motivation can lead to people neglecting themselves too much, leading to stress, burnout, and not enough focus on their own responsibilities.

Recently, some colleagues and I set out to settle the debate by examining every study currently available on prosocial motivation in the workplace. We found more than 200 studies conducted over the last 50 years involving over 50,000 workers from almost every industry and from all over the globe; then, we conducted a meta-analysis — carefully analyzing the effects of prosocial motives on psychological well-being, job performance, and career success. Five key findings emerged:

Feeling well at work. On average, a strong desire to help others predicts less stress and burnout, and higher job satisfaction. There are several reasons for this benefit, including that prosocial people have a stronger sense of meaning and purpose at work, experience deeper relationships with others, and are more likely to receive emotional support. Overall, establishing and maintaining positive connections to others in the workplace appears to outweigh the stress that comes with feeling responsible for others.

Elevated performance and career opportunities. Prosocial people do not just feel better, they also receive high performance ratings from their supervisors. With performance, a number of different factors appear to be at play: commitment to others can lead to greater effort and persistence, a focus on what is useful to others can foster creative ideas, and coworkers are often more willing to share resources with people they view as prosocial. In addition to individual job performance, we also found that coworkers of prosocial people were more likely to see them as promotable and leader-like, because they show a more collective focus on the good of the group as a whole. Although a focus on others can take away time and energy that would otherwise go towards one’s own job concerns, it appears that this focus is a profitable investment.

Beyond IQ and hard work. When thinking about personal traits, some of the best predictors of well-being, performance, and career success are IQ (cognitive ability) and personality traits like being hard-working (conscientiousness) and emotionally stable. How does prosocial motivation stack up? We found that the desire to help others plays a unique role that is not explained by these other traits. In fact, prosocial motivation is the best predictor of any of these traits when it comes well-being, and second only to IQ when it comes to job performance or career success.

Prosocial motivation is not agreeableness. Having an agreeable personality (polite, sincere, cooperative, modest) is often linked to prosocial motivation because each deals with how we relate to others. However, we find that the two have remarkably different effects. Being an agreeable person predicts slightly lower well-being and performance, and its negative effect on career success is even larger. In contrast, prosocial motivation enhances each of those outcomes for people at work. There is a key factor that drives these differences: many people balance prosocial motivation with a healthy concern for themselves, whereas agreeable people often over-prioritize the interests of others.

Intrinsic motives are best. The benefits of wanting to help others were greater when the motivation was intrinsic. That is, people who experience the biggest benefit from prosocial motives are those who feel like it is an authentic part of who they are. They have internalized a concern for others to a degree that makes it personally meaningful and enjoyable. In contrast, when motives felt forced, such as an obligation received from one’s boss, the desire to help others no longer had the same benefits. This is particularly the case for well-being, where the positive effects were almost entirely wiped out when the motivation was obligatory rather than intrinsic.

What Does this Mean for Working Well?

Based on our research, the jury is in when it comes to wanting to help others: it tends to make people better off, both in terms of their personal well-being and in terms of their success at work. Individual professionals would do well to cultivate prosocial motives as a part of who they are at work, being careful to integrate the desire to help others with the desire to help oneself. From a manager’s standpoint, this is a trait worth looking for when hiring and when organizing teams. Overall, our research suggests that organizations benefit significantly when they cultivate prosocial motives alongside other important individual factors.

Jordan Nielsen is an Assistant Professor of Management in the organizational behavior and human resources area at Purdue's Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business