Will You Help Me? Why Some Co-Workers Are More Likely to Say Yes Than Others

Our interactions around the office, and our relationships with our colleagues, are certainly impacted by the corporate ladder and the rung on which we stand at any given point. Some employees might find themselves behaving a little differently with folks who are a few steps higher in the hierarchy when compared with how they act when they’re around those who are a few notches below them. People even email differently when communicating with the top. To some extent, all of this is only natural. Of course interactions with higher-ups are a little different than with others. But, could status impact how willing people are to help each other around the office?


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A recent study, conducted by Sarah Doyle, a doctoral student at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, and co-authored by Robert Lount, Steffanie Wilk, and Nathan Pettit, sought to shed some light on this issue. Let’s take a closer look at this research and some of its most significant findings.

Researchers conducted two separate studies in an attempt to understand workplace cooperation and co-workers’ willingness to help one another.

Two distinct studies were conducted, and both came to similar conclusions.

In the first study, 267 undergraduate students imagined they were a part of a team of 15 within an organization. They were then asked whether or not they would be willing to provide help to one of the group members who was close to landing a major account, but was running short on time. The participants were then told one of three things about the group member’s status at the company compared with their own: there was either a “small status distance” a “moderate status distance,” or a “large status distance.” Participants in this study were most likely to help when the team member was moderately distant from them in terms of status.

The second study took place at a customer call center that shares information monthly with workers about how employees rank in terms of sales (making status transparent in this workplace). This particular work environment also encourages collaboration among its workers. In the study, 170 employees filled out a survey that elicited information about which co-workers regularly ask them for help, and about whom they seek out when they’re looking for assistance. The results of this research concurred with those from the first study; co-workers are most helpful when they are the right “status distance” from one another.

The right status distance for support: Not too close, but not too far.

The results of this research indicate that when co-workers are at the same status level, they are less likely to support one another than when they have a little more distance between them. Perhaps this is because these employees feel competitive with one another, or they feel that it wouldn’t be fair to them and their time to help someone who is in roughly the same place as they are. Similarly, when someone’s status is very distant, they are less likely to help out as well. There is, however, a kind of sweet spot where co-workers are most likely to support one another and offer help – a moderate status distance.

The takeaways:

It might be helpful to keep these findings in mind if and when you’re in charge of teams, new employees, or simply organizing the completion of a project. These dynamics could help inform you about how to structure things for maximum productivity.

“Managers have to consider how status distance plays a role in how well their corporate hierarchies work,” Doyle said.

“You might want to avoid assigning the most recently hired employee to train the newcomer,” Lount noted. “If that relative newcomer is worried about his or her status in the organization, they may be less than helpful with this new person who could surpass them.”

Also, the next time you need someone to help you out at the last minute, pay attention to whether or not a co-worker with this particular status distance is the one who ultimately comes to your aid.

Tell Us What You Think

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