How to Help Your Teammates Without Sabotaging Your Own Work

Every work day finds us focusing on our projects, striving to meet deadlines and finish tasks before we leave the office. But that’s not all we do, is it? We also spend a lot of time helping teammates who need our advice and input. Most often, we’re eager to help. But at the end of the day, when we realize we didn’t meet that deadline or we’re not even half way through that critical task, we have mixed feelings. Helping teammates felt good, but it took too much of our time and energy, and we neglected our work.
So, what motivates us to jump in and help, and how can we do it while staying productive?

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Why we help

Before we delve into ways to help other without getting tired, let’s see why we help in the first place.
After analyzing daily diary data for around 70 managers and employees across three consecutive weeks, the authors of the study “When Lending a Hand Depletes the Will: The Daily Costs and Benefits of Helping” concluded that 75-90 per cent of our helping occurs in response to help requests by coworkers. So, most of the help we give is not exactly a voluntary act, but more like a socially required response.
Be that as it may, we don’t always have the time or the energy for it. The main reason is because we’re busy with our own tasks and responsibilities. Yet, most often we leave our own priorities aside and lend a hand anyway. So, what motivates us to help out? Here are the possible drivers that I found.

Some of us might be more altruistic than others

That’s right, some of us might show an increased ability in understanding the emotional state of another person and at the same time we might feel the need to alleviate or minimize their suffering. So, when a teammate comes up to our desk (desperately) asking for help, we drop everything and jump in to rescue them.
In a famous TED talk, psychologist Abigail Marsh states compassion is a key driver to altruism and explains why some people seem to have more compassion than others. In the neurological stage of her research, she did brain scans on extraordinarily altruistic people and found out that their amygdala is by about 8 per cent larger than that of average people. The amygdala is an important part of our brain, responsible for the perception of emotions like anger, fear, and sadness.
According to Marsh, people with a larger amygdala are better at recognizing other people’s fear. After interviewing a large number of altruistic people, i.e. people who donated their kidneys to complete strangers, she concluded that altruistic people have no center. They don’t see themselves at the center of anything, as being better or inherently more important than anybody else.

So, some of us might not consider our work to be more important than that of our teammates. Because they’re in distress, we find it normal to put our tasks on hold and help them right away.

Some of us might be just vain

I personally think there are three ways to go about this:

  1. We might help because help requests confirm our expertise and we feel good about it. In a way, helping others provides us with a context for self-affirmation.
  2. The image we project is very important to us and, at the same time, we know that refusing to help is somewhat a social faux pas. Therefore, by helping we make sure our good image is preserved and we’re thus socially accepted.
  3. We really want to be appreciated, and responding to a help request fills our need for gratitude. So what if we’re left with less time for our own priorities? That simple pat on the shoulder or a little “thank you” is what we need to replenish our energy.

Some of us might value relationships more than work

Yes, some of us might have a higher need for relatedness. In such a case, even relationships at work are a priority. So, we jump in to help teammates because we want to reinforce our relationships and/or we don’t want to put them at risk. For that purpose only, we’re willing to postpone our own responsibilities whatever the costs.

Some of us might just not know where to draw the line

Some of us might simply feel trapped between two conflicting goals: the willingness to help and the need to fulfill our own responsibilities. This exhausting two-way mental process affects our ability to properly assess our teammate’s need for help as well as the importance of our own work. The confusion decreases our energy levels. In short, we get tired. As a result, we make poor decisions, like putting our teammate’s interest first and devaluing our own responsibilities. This doesn’t exactly qualify as altruism, it’s more like lack of strategy.

The costs of helping

Asking for and giving help at work is something we all do on a daily basis. We usually focus on the effects of receiving help, but we rarely take into consideration how responding to help requests affects us. And we should. Because helping is more disrupting and consuming than we imagine. It decreases our capacity to fully invest our attention, time, and resources into our own work.
Just think about it, you’re focusing on your task, all your energy is in one place, and suddenly you’re being prompted to:

  • switch your mindset
  • take a new perspective
  • control your emotions
  • channel your full support
  • solve somebody else’s problem

When you go back to whatever you were doing, because of all resource-depleting processes above, your energy level is very low – very much like your productivity. You need to pause and refuel, and that takes time – your work time, that is.
Recommended reading: To Reduce Stress At Work, Avoid Interruptions

How to make helping less stressful

We all know that teamwork grows on collaboration. And when you’re talking about collaboration, you cannot consider rejecting help requests just because you’ve got better things to do. On the other hand, it’s hard for help-seekers to empathize with helpers because their crisis is taking their full attention and energy.
So, here are few recommendations that both help-seekers and helpers should put into practice to make helping a bit less stressful on everyone.

If you’re a helper

  1. Question the “right here, right now.”
    Help-seekers usually tend to send out a false signal of emergency. Whether they express the urgency of their problem or not, find out exactly when they need your help. Perhaps, their need won’t interfere too much with your work. It’s important to ask questions. Because sometimes people reach out for help not because it’s extremely urgent, but because they can’t handle the anxiety. So they’ll ask for help right away just to relive their anxiety.
  2. Re-evaluate priorities.
    Re-assess the importance of your own work and try to see where it stands compared to your teammate’s problem. Also, take into consideration if your delay in helping out will affect just your teammate or the entire team. If your help has a major influence on the team’s success, then you might consider re-evaluating priorities.
  3. Pause over your motivation.
    In the beginning of this article, I’ve mentioned some of the reasons for which people help each other. Take a minute to identify why exactly you want to help and see if it’s really worth putting your teammate’s interest first. Make sure to distinguish between being generous, vain or just confused, and evaluate the effect that your decision has on your own work.
  4. Ask them to do their homework.
    Some people are very good at crying for help, and nothing more. If it’s a half-desperate, half-lazy cry for help, make sure your teammate has independently looked for a solution, ask them to give you a full heads up or break the problem into little tasks, and let them solve some of them. That way you won’t waste time piecing up information while they sit and wait until you come up with something.
  5. Negotiate a timeline.
    Helping is still help even if you’re giving it on your own terms. So, there’s nothing wrong in suggesting a timeline like the end of the day or after you’ve accomplished an important task.
  6. Agree to only 1 or 2 “helping hands” per day.
    You don’t have to be a Good Samaritan 24 hours a day. If you deal with too many help requests, not only will you have to put aside your work too often, but you’ll also end up feeling frustrated and resentful. It’s alright to say “not today, let’s do this tomorrow or some other time”, if you’ve already agreed to helping other teammates.

If you’re a help-seeker

  1. Evaluate the emergency.
    When you don’t know the answer to a problem, you might get frustrated, worried, or anxious. No matter which emotion prevails, it’s not something you want to hold on to for too long. So, you immediately reach out for help and translate your negative emotions into a feeling of pressure that you exert on your helper. Try to accurately assess the emergency of finding a solution and be clear and calm when you ask for help.
  2. Help them help you.
    You’re most likely to get help fast, if you’re doing your part of the job. Try to find solutions by looking into all the consulting resources available. Gather all the information you can get on the problem you’re facing and make a clear, concise presentation so that the helper doesn’t waste time investigating or digging for fact that are already (or should be) in your hands.
  3. Say “thank you.”
    Apparently only 15% of us say thank you at work. Is it because by expressing our gratitude we confirm that we were helpless or we showed lack of expertise or self-confidence? Don’t take help for granted because it does come at a cost. Say “thank you,” and that will give your helper a bit of energy to refuel and go back to their work with a sense of accomplishment, even if it’s not related to their own work.

By helping our teammates, we can make a positive difference in their lives as well as improve interpersonal connections and feel better about ourselves. Responding to help in considerate doses reduces our stress level and fills our basic need for relatedness and competence.
However, we also have to take into consideration the costs that helping has on our productivity. From this perspective, we should try negotiating helping requests so that we don’t get depleted and have enough resources to get our work done. It’s still collaboration, it’s still teamwork, only the price on productivity is not that high.
How often do you respond to help requests at work? How do you manage to help and stay productive? You’re welcome to comment below.

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