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Helping yourself by helping others

Working as a team: When colleagues help each other everybody benefits.
What do you do to help out your office co-workers? Have your say
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Global Office

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The key to happiness, productivity and popularity at work has been revealed.

We all just need to look out for one another a little bit more, according to research published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Employees who regularly do favors for colleagues work more effectively and enjoy a higher social standing than their less generous peers, concludes Professor Francis J. Flynn of Columbia University who carried out the study.

For some workers, that conclusion may come as a surprise. Helping out a colleague, common sense would suggest, may boost your popularity rating but at the expense of time spent on your own tasks.

Not so, says Flynn: "Many people feel awkward when it comes to favor exchange on the job. They may be against it in principle, or they may think that asking for help will reflect adversely on their competence, or they might be afraid that doing favors will demand too much of their time. This research suggests that it pays to try to overcome that awkwardness."

The research was based on a survey of 161 engineers, divided into eight groups, working at a telecommunications firm in San Francisco.

Flynn asked them to rate themselves and their co-workers on the frequency they performed common office favors, such as helping with problem solving, providing a second opinion or sharing an especially heavy workload. They were also asked to rate their colleagues' social status and contribution at work.

When the results were compared with official company records of each employees' productivity, Flynn discovered that the most productive groups were those in which favors were frequently exchanged with giving and receiving roughly in balance with a slight bias towards giving.

By contrast, workers in groups with a lower frequency of favor exchange were only more productive when they received more favors than they gave. When both giving and receiving were in balance, or workers gave more favors than they received, productivity dropped dramatically.

High social status

Unsurprisingly, workers who regularly performed favors also enjoyed a high social status. On a scale of one to seven, workers considered highly generous averaged five while those who exchanged favors infrequently scored just three.

Flynn argues that there are two reasons why productivity increases in an environment where colleagues regularly help each other out.

Firstly, a well-developed culture of favor exchange helps create a more efficient working relationship.

"Through trial and error, both actors come to understand what can be gained through increased resource sharing with one another," says Flynn.

Secondly, as workers get used to performing and receiving favors, they will become less inhibited about asking for extra help when required, and they will be more willing to offer help when they are confident they will also receive assistance when necessary.

"In short," concludes Flynn, "a pattern of frequent favor exchange increases our willingness to help out colleagues with whatever amount of assistance they need when they most need it."

So, next time a colleague appears to be floundering with an intractable problem or slowly disappearing under a mountain of paperwork, don't be afraid to get stuck in.

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