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Being The Good Guy At Work Is A Bad Idea Always ready to help out a colleague in need? Studies suggest your benevolence might backfire

By Vaibhav Joshi

You're reading Entrepreneur Asia Pacific, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


Do you often go out of your way to help a co-worker with a difficult task or an urgent presentation? You might think it will enhance your reputation in the office and make you popular, but science informs us that acts of professional kindness have the opposite effect. Recent research has found that highly cooperative and generous people actually attract more hatred and social punishment that they deserve, something that's especially evident in competitive circumstances like a crowded workplace.

Science Has Its Say

The study in question was titled "Why Hate the Good Guy? Antisocial Punishment of High Cooperators Is Greater When People Compete To Be Chosen' and was published in Psychological Science in April 2018. The researchers found that helpful people are usually viewed in a positive light but there are occasions when the good guys face punishment for their well-meaning actions. They then tried to zero in on the psychological mechanisms in play during the decision-making process.

The Surprising Findings

The researchers found that the reason some people like to bring cooperators down a peg is if they think the good guys will make them look bad in contrast. This behaviour seemed to increase with an increase in competition within the workplace as cooperation levels were found to increase when there was less competition.

However, the most surprising finding from the study was that this was the case even when punishing the do-gooder resulted in decreased benefits for the entire group, including the person carrying out the punishment.

Why Does This Happen?

Pat Barclay, lead author of the study and psychology professor at the University of Guelph in Canada is of the opinion that humans seem predisposed to treat people who act nicer than them with some hostility and suspicion. He relates it to the behaviour shown by ancient humans who were part of hunter-gatherer societies. Anthropological evidence from that era suggests that excellent hunters were prevented from dominating the group, in an effort by people to defend their equal status by bringing down somebody who could potentially exert their dominance over everyone else.

The Impact Of In-Office Behaviour

All employers would all wish that their honest employees would set a good example in the office, but that's only the case if it's bad behaviour, suggests a study published in The Journal of Finance in February 2018. In their study, Stephen Dimmock from the Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and William C. Gerken from the University of Kentucky found that even the most honest employees would commit misconduct after working with a dishonest colleague but not vice versa. They believe this happens because bad behaviour is much easier to adopt than good and recommend further research into the subject to help managers and employers develop a more efficient and hard-working workforce.

So, Should Your In-Office Behaviour Change?

Even though the University of Guelph study seems to recommend never helping a colleague out at all, the researchers do stress that it's all to do with how much competition there is at the workplace. The hostility and anti-social behaviour against do-gooders only come to the fore when their extra efforts might paint the rest of the workforce in a bad light. However, when the co-workers are not competing against each other cooperation is reciprocated more freely.

Vaibhav Joshi

Entrepreneur Staff

Features Writer, Entrepreneur Asia-Pacific


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