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Is Your Generosity Backfiring?

Is helping others at work wearing you out?   Unfortunately, some days it can be hard enough to get through what you need to do yourself, let alone find time to help others out.  So, is there a way to be generous and helpful without getting burnt out in the process?

“While being helpful generally creates lots of value, both for those you’re helping, and for the people around you, being generous can become counter-productive when your responses to everyone’s requests for help leave you feeling depleted, ” explained Reb Rebele, the Research director for Wharton People Analytics when I interviewed him recently.

For example, researchers have found that when people invest in effective high-quality connections and behave like “givers” – who are willing to help others without expecting anything in return — rather than “takers” – who are only interested in getting what they want — they become more efficient at solving problems, getting things done, and balancing demands to ensure consistent performance.  They also build teams that are more cohesive and coordinated and establish environments where other people feel that their needs are a top priority, which often helps organizations that have more giving cultures to outperform other workplaces.

Reb and his colleagues have also found, however, that there is a risk of collaboration burnout in organizations that rely heavily on giving.  For example, a study of more than three hundred organizations found that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided with 20-30 percent of value-added collaborations coming from only 3-5 percent of people who become known for being both capable and willing to help.  Thus, the increasing demands placed on “givers” can turn a virtuous cycle into a vicious cycle that creates bottlenecks and undermines people’s effectiveness and ability to flourish.

The problem, Reb explained, is that while “selfless givers” have a high concern for others, they suffer from having a low concern for themselves and consequently their acts of generosity leave them exhausted and paradoxically helping others less.  In contrast, “self-protective givers” are generous, but they know their limits so instead of saying “yes” to every help request, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving to ensure they can sustain their generosity and flourish as they support others.

As a result, studies suggest that self-protective givers offer the most direct support, take the most initiative, make the best suggestions, take responsibility for delivering on their own goals, and make the most sustainable contributions in a system.  They achieve this by being thoughtful about how they help others (i.e. proactively aligning their giving with their strengths and passions so that giving renews their energy and provides greater value), when they help (i.e. chunking their giving into dedicated blocks of time to maintain their focus), and whom they help (i.e. prioritizing requests and saying yes when it matters most and referring requests to others when they don’t have the time or skills).

Reb suggested you can be a more self-protective giver by:

  • Chunk your giving – you can be more thoughtful about whom, how, and when you help others by setting aside a specific window of time for your giving.  This can help you be more productive and less drained by others’ requests.  And as a manager you can foster effective giving by enabling your people to have more autonomy over when they’re collaborative, when they’re helping, and when they’re working on their own essential tasks.
  • Secure your own oxygen mask – just like the advice given in airline safety videos, by firstly attending to your own needs – in this case such as time and motivation – you’ll then be more effective in helping others.  Restore your energy throughout the day by regularly taking breaks, or finding other ways to recharge.
  • Invest in five minute favors – find ways to do something each day that helps someone in less than five minutes.  It’s easy to feel you need to respond to help requests, even though you’re not the right person as it’s outside your area of expertise.  One way to do this is through a pro-social triage.  Consider who else in your networks could be a better fit and would be able to give an answer more quickly.  You can then make an introduction or ask them to recommend a resource for you to share.  Alternatively, create or look for knowledge assets – articles, videos, or links that provide useful information.  In this way you can nudge people in the direction of what they want to know, or boost their choice in finding out the information for themselves.
  • Create giving cultures –most of the time giving happens in our organizations because somebody was willing to ask for help.  As a leader you can make it easy and acceptable for your people to ask the right people for help, and in a way, that doesn’t place too many demands on others.   This can encourage more giving from everyone, and prevent the selfless givers from potential burnout, as they can be more likely to identify when they are taking on too much, and when they need help themselves.  

What can you do to be a self-protective giver?

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