Workplaces typically are environments that value traits like individual drive, effort, and innovation, which are recognized and rewarded through promotions, pay, and bonuses. In many jobs, there’s very little incentive for “prosocial behavior”—that is, actions aimed at benefiting others. Yet in most workplaces, we can usually find individuals who seem to have a propensity toward helping others.
What are the benefits of having an inclination toward kind and compassionate behavior at work, and why should workplaces care?
Those are questions tackled by a recent meta-analysis, a type of study that gathers and compares data from many studies in order to identify trends and common results. In this case, the researchers included 252 groups of participants from 201 workplace studies focused on people’s motivation to be prosocial: their “desire to benefit others or expend effort out of concern for others.” Since there has been an abundance of research on prosocial behavior, the researchers focused on prosocial motivation as an important precursor to behavior and a trait that people might show across contexts (not just at work).
They found that employees who demonstrated prosocial motivation had better overall well-being at work, which was measured through surveys of happiness, job satisfaction, burnout, and more. Workplace culture also mattered; if employees were motivated to be kind and helpful but worked in more competitive or individualist workplace cultures, the well-being link wasn’t as strong. Those with strong prosocial motivation at workplaces with a collectivist culture—ones that place a higher value on group achievement—were more likely to flourish there.
Employers who may interpret this finding as justification to mandate helpfulness from all employees should proceed with caution, however; the findings showed that it is voluntary, not forced, prosocial motivation that seems to bring the greatest benefits to employees. An employee who sees a colleague struggling with a project and is motivated to help may get more satisfaction than a colleague whose manager asks them to help. Employees need to be able to choose when they are motivated to be kind and helpful, if everyone is to benefit.
When it comes to benefits, the type of behavior also makes a difference. Employees fared better when they were motivated toward actions that maintain the status quo: for example, volunteering and helping out the organization in ways that go beyond your job description (like organizing employee birthday parties), rather than speaking up against wrongdoing or seeking more systemic change.
“Employees with strong prosocial motivation are not only aware of the environmental cues that suggest a need for prosocial actions but also are aware of the potential consequences that their good intentions may incur for other people, leading them to hold back on prosocial behaviors that are challenging in nature,” write the authors. This highlights the need for both concern for others and psychological safety (the ability to speak up and push back without fear of negative consequences) in order for employees to innovate and shift organizational cultures, not just perpetuate them.
Does a motivation toward kindness and helpfulness translate into better job performance? The researchers found that employees with higher prosocial motivation also tended to have higher opinions of their own job performance, but not higher performance measured against key job metrics. That might sound discouraging, but for organizations with the right mix of management coaching and performance management systems, an employee’s subjective performance is more likely to be in alignment with objective measures.
Employers may be interested in prosociality at work to foster a positive work culture and promote productivity. Although the study results discourage enforcing this kind of behavior, there are many ways to encourage kindness and compassion at work. For example, a recent study found that awe can also motivate us to be kind and helpful on the job. In an experiment, U.S. participants who recalled an awe experience at work—such as witnessing a coworker doing inspiring work or their company take care of employees in need—were more willing to help out the researchers by taking another survey, even though they wouldn’t get paid much to do so. Organizations can help inspire employees to care for others by creating beautiful environments to work in or setting an example of generosity and goodness, the researchers suggest.
There are many benefits to prosocial motivation in the workplace, driving some of the key experiences that employees are now demanding at work: greater well-being, better relationships, and feeling good about the work they are doing. However, without the right workplace systems and policies, employees’ own generous intentions are not a panacea and alone cannot create a better workplace culture. Employers interested in using this research to improve their workplace culture should start with examining their starting point and deciding if the goal is to continue the status quo or change it.