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Welp! Don't help coworkers unless they ask first

How often do you offer to help a coworker who didn't ask for your help? Often? Sometimes? Never? New research reveals that never offering to help might be the best course of action!

Researchers at Michigan State University surveyed 54 full-time employees between the ages of 21 and 60 and collected data on their various interactions with coworkers. They found that employees' self esteem can suffer when their colleagues offer to help.

But that's not all. Our own morale as the helper can suffer when we feel like our coworker didn't appreciate our assistance. Our coworker didn't even say "thank you", and now we wonder why we still work here. Nobody seems to appreciates us!

The Areas of My Unwanted Expertise
That's right: every time you utter "Do you need some help?", your coworker might be hearing: "You are completely incompetent, aren't you?" Ouch.

It might land like that old Billy Swan song that sounds, well, a little bit tone deaf in 2018. I heard it the other day for the first time in a long time. It has a great melody and the singer has a fantastic voice, but some of the lyrics feel straight out of 1974. If your child needs a daddy, I can help. Excuse me?

Old songs aside, we still feel inclined to help when we see a coworker struggling with anything from a heavy cardboard box to an overflowing inbox at work. We want to help, because we want to feel helpful. But our help might be the last thing our coworker wants.

I Didn't Ask For Your Help
The key at work, the researchers suggest, is to offer reactive help -- meaning we wait to be asked for our assistance. If we wait to be asked, then we have our coworker's buy-in regarding the help that we provide. Otherwise, we could be perceived as an unnecessarily proactive pain in the you-know-what who doesn't understand the full scope of our co-worker's problem. No, thanks.

So much for your Natalie Merchant moment at work. Of course, there are gender overtones here (a woman might not like it when a male colleague offers his help), but there can also be generational overtones. For example, let's say a 50-year-old Gen Xer asks a 30-year-old Millennial if he needs help. The older coworker is simply trying to be helpful, but it goes over like a lead balloon.

It doesn't work any better the other way around, either. For example, let's say the 30-year-old Millennial asks the 50-year-old Gen Xer if he needs help with technology. Because technology is hard for "old" people, right?


In sum, everybody, no matter their age or gender, has a potentially good reason to get upset whenever a coworker asks if they need help. So don't do it unless you're a manager or some random workplace blogger who references songs from 1974 for some reason. Let your coworkers ask you for help. No matter how sorely you might be tempted to offer your assistance.


  1. I phrase it as, "What do you need me to do?" This perhaps sounds like they are delegating a task to me, rather than me helping them with a task.

    1. That's a great suggestion, Enid. Thanks for your comment!


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