Helping Others – Helping Ourselves

Guest Contribution by Christine M. Riordan, Ph.D.

“One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.” Lewis Carroll

The holidays are often a time of reflection. One important area to contemplate is how we actively back, encourage, and support the people we work with – whether we are a boss, co-worker, or subordinate.

Social psychologists call behaviors we engage in to help others at work – prosocial behaviors. These types of behaviors include a genuine concern for the rights and welfare of others, feeling and expressing empathy, or doing things – simply put – that benefit other people.

Research has long shown that people who receive helpful and supportive behavior from others at work profit in ways such as higher performance, greater self-worth, an enhanced sense of belonging, lower stress, and an increased sense of well-being.

Additionally, a 2014 study in the Journal of Vocational Behavior demonstrated that employees’ perceptions of a supportive work climate by both supervisors and co-workers led to greater employee organizational commitment, engagement, performance, and reduced turnover. Not only are supervisor-employee relationships important, but so are the behaviors among co-workers.

In short, we all have the ability to make a positive (or negative) difference for others in the workplace. So, what are some common supportive and helping behaviors that have the most benefit for others?

  • Treat Others with Dignity and Respect. In her book, Dignity, Harvard Professor Donna Hicks notes that we all need to treat people fairly and justly. Hicks goes on to suggest that it is important for us to make others feel physically and psychologically safe – free of concern about being shamed, excluded, or humiliated and that people can feel free to speak without fear of retribution. Tony Schwartz, CEO and President of the Energy Project, comments that “great leaders understand that how they make people feel, day in and day out, has a profound influence on how they perform.” While these supportive behaviors sound so simple, a study in 2013 found that workplace rudeness was on the rise. Authors Christine Porath, Professor at Georgetown, and Christine Pearson, Professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management said that rudeness in the workplace is rampant. Porath and Pearson polled workers over a 14-year period, and found that 98 percent of respondents reported experiencing rudeness and that over 50 percent of the respondents said they were treated rudely at least once a week. The behaviors included overt nastiness, intentional undermining, ignoring their opinions, among others. Research has also shown that workplace incivility is related to reduced satisfaction with the job, supervisor, and coworkers, lower intention to stay, decreased daily happiness, and decreased longer-term mental and physical health.
  • Support Others’ Strengths and Weaknesses. Another recent study showed that CEO’s, who are more empathetic and appreciative of others’ strengths and weaknesses, create positive impacts for both their employees and organizations. It is important for all of us to celebrate others for their hard work and contributions and it is equally important to accept that everyone has weaknesses and makes mistakes. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, CEO of, David Roche, noted that you must be tolerant of the diversity of weaknesses in your employees. He goes on to explain that within their company culture, they look beyond the shortcomings of employees because doing so accepts them in their totality and allows their strengths to shine. Moreover, it creates an integrative, broad-minded, and inclusive environment.
  • Take Ownership. When we help others because we want to, and not because we have to, we put more time into building a high quality relationship and a greater sense of closeness to them. Others also receive more value from us when we ask them how we may be of the most help. Indeed, studies have shown that recipients of gifts benefit more when the givers ask them what they need or want. Furthermore, when we hold ourselves accountable for our own actions – we also create value for others. During a talk at UCLA, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, stated, “Our mission statement about treating people with respect and dignity is not just words but a creed we live by every day. You can’t expect your employees to exceed the expectations of your customers if you don’t exceed the employees’ expectations of management. That’s the contract.”

While we have the capacity to support others daily through our actions and words, research has also shown that when we help others, we benefit as well.

  • Broadens Our Perspective. When we focus on other people, we change our perspective. We move away from a focus on ourselves – our own needs and motives – to consider the pressures, stresses, needs, and welfare of others. A great deal of social psychological research has shown that when we take another person’s perspective – try to see the world through their eyes – many benefits ensue. The results include increased liking and greater compassion, improved social interactions, better decisions, and less prejudice towards others who differ from us.
  • Makes Us Happier. Additionally, the more we focus on contributing in meaningful ways to other people’s lives, the more our own happiness hinges on theirs. According to one study, the trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals. That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we tend to feel in the end. What’s more, according to another study, altruism not only correlates with an increase in happiness but also actually causes it. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky conducted a study in which students performed five acts of kindness per week over six weeks. The students who engaged in their own acts of kindness reported a significant increase in their levels of happiness relative to a control group of students who performed no acts of kindness.
  • Improves our Health. Stephen Post, physician and author of Altruism and Health, writes that prosocial acts link to fewer symptoms of depression, lower stress, greater psychological well-being, and greater longevity for the giver. Physicians have indeed found that the body doles out feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, which has a soothing effect. In 1988, Allen Luks called this physical response to helping a “helpers high.” Luks surveyed thousands of volunteers across the United States and found that people who helped other people reported better health than peers did, and many claimed that this health improvement began when they started to volunteer. Helpers reported a physical sensation associated with helping; half reported that they experienced a “high” feeling, 43 percent felt stronger and more energetic, 28 percent felt warm, 22 percent felt calmer and less depressed, 21 percent experienced greater feelings of self-worth, and 13 percent experienced fewer aches and pains.

So this holiday season, take the challenge – ask yourself how you can create moments that matter for others by providing help, encouragement, and support – and, at the end of the day, it is likely to help you as well.

Christine M. Riordan, PhD, is the Provost and professor of management at the University of Kentucky. In July 2015, she will become the 10th President of Adelphi University in New York. Her research focuses on diversity and inclusion, leadership effectiveness, and career success. Follow her on Twitter at @Chris_M_Riordan.

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