Helping Behaviour at Work: How Much is Too Much

Neha took to her job at a start-up, right out of college, like a fish to water. Working in the ed-tech space, she was buoyed by the idea of serving a greater purpose while also being independent. The team was youthful, energetic and driven. Though her timings were long, Neha didn’t shy away from taking on extra projects. Ever the helpful one, she mentored freshers, and was the go-to person when problems arose. So, when the office got flooded during the rains, Neha and the security guard were the only two people who waited while the premises were drained. As the start-up was doing well, Neha continued to grow with it. But somewhere down the line, around seven years later, Neha realized that her peers who had started along with her were faring much better in other reputed firms. Why did Neha get left behind? 

Reciprocity styles at work 

In his bestselling book, Give & Take, psychologist Adam Grant observes that people have one of three preferred styles of ‘reciprocity’ at work. Takers, according to Grant, always put their needs ahead of others, even if it hurts their team or organization. While takers may help others, they do so “strategically,” enumerating the pros and cons. Givers, on the other hand, tend to be more selfless and may not expect favours to be returned. Finally, a third style is of matchers, or those who expect quid pro quo.  

Further, Grant finds that across organisations and professions, givers, or those who voluntarily help others without necessarily expecting payback, are the most successful. However, he adds an important caveat to this finding: While givers may excel in their careers, they are also most likely to be the least successful. How does Grant explain this paradox that has been observed in an array of professions from engineering to sales to medicine? Apparently, the kind of giver you are matters. So, what differentiates the givers who crest to the top of their organisations versus those who sink to the bottom?  

Selfless givers put other people’s interests over and above their own, time and again. Top performing givers, on the other hand, are invested in helping other people and themselves. Grant calls them ‘otherish’ givers and emphasizes that they are distinct from matchers who expect tit for tat for every favour given or received. Otherish givers, in contrast, extend help without expecting anything in return. However, they ensure that they don’t “overextend themselves.” While selfless givers may jeopardize their own well-being and interests whole helping others, otherish givers define healthy boundaries.  

How to be an otherish giver 

So, what strategies do otherish givers adopt to gain the benefits of giving without succumbing to its fallout? In her book, The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky avers that she and her colleagues found that chunking acts of kindness into a single day provides a greater happiness boost for people than spreading the acts over the course of a week. Grant believes that otherish givers may capitalize on this strategy. Instead of helping colleagues every time they make a request, otherish givers may choose to support co-workers in a substantial way when they aren’t too pressed for time with their own work. 

Further, Grant states that helping others energizes us only when we do it voluntarily. If we are compelled or obliged to lend a hand, then we’re likely to feel resentful or used. Otherish givers are less likely to support others when they’re being forced to do so. Additionally, they are not shy about seeking help for themselves when required. When otherish givers feel overwhelmed by their own workload, they reach out to others for “advice, assistance, and resources,” thereby taking care of their own well-being. They also establish a supportive network that they can depend on when the tide is rough. 

Finally, while selfless givers put themselves at-risk for burnout, otherish givers tend to be more resilient over the long term. So, go ahead and lend a hand to your colleagues but don’t forget to take care of your own needs and well-being as well.  

About the Author

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is a psychologist & writer. She is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at

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