Are You Super Generous at Work? This Study Says That Might Not Be Good

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“Hey, can you do me a favor?”

If you’re a giver or people pleaser, hearing those words may send an involuntary shiver down your spine — you know it’s hard to say no.

It’s even harder to say no to people at work. We all want to be liked and accepted by our co-workers, right?

I give you permission to stop being so nice at work.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of giving everything you’ve got to helping others, only to end up burning out or worse — becoming resentful of everyone around you.

But don’t just take my word for it, the smarties at Harvard Business Review back up the concept with scientific research.

Adam Grant and Reb Rebele studied workers in a variety of fields. They discovered the people who make the best personal and professional contributions in the workplace are those who set good boundaries and make time to work on their own goals, as well.

The researchers point out that workers who constantly drop everything to help their co-workers end up energy-depleted and less able to focus on their own jobs.

It sets up a perfect environment for unhappy, burned-out employees — a scenario that impacts the entire organization.

Basically, it’s counterproductive work behavior.

How Generous are You In the Workplace?

The key to avoiding being unnecessarily accommodating in the workplace is understanding where you fall on what Grant and Rebele call the “generosity spectrum.”

When figuring out how to prevent overextending yourself, it also helps to know where your colleagues are on the spectrum.

1. Selfless Givers

These people freely give their time, but don’t set effective boundaries or limitations on their availability. That means they’re often exhausted to the point of being unable to help others, which stresses them out even further and creates a vicious cycle.

2. Self-Protective Givers

Here’s the sweet spot most of us should strive to reach. These people are generous, but also set boundaries for themselves to prevent burnout.

By effectively managing emotional and physical resources, they sustain their ability to be continually generous.

3. Matchers

Some people show their generosity by trading favors with others. It’s a transactional approach researchers say adds less overall value to generosity because you’re continually keeping score.

On the other hand, this trait can come in handy when you’re dealing with the next type of person.

4. Takers

We all know someone who unflinchingly takes whatever they can get from the people around them. You’ll want to identify these types of co-workers as quickly as possible — they’ll impose on your time and drain your resources in the blink of an eye.

Be Nice — But Not Too Nice

I’ve talked about the cost of being too nice in the workplace and how to identify the generosity traits in yourself and others, but what about putting it into practice?

Am I recommending you show up at work tomorrow and just randomly knock papers off your co-workers’ desks or growl at people in the breakroom?

Of course not (but it does sound fun…)

Here’s what the research boils down to: Understand that when you sacrificially give of yourself, it comes at a cost.

If you can mitigate the cost by setting boundaries and learning your limits, you won’t be as susceptible to burnout or end up resenting your colleagues.

I realize this is easier said than done. I get it, I’m a people pleaser, too.

I genuinely love it when the people around me are happy, so I have a hard time saying no to co-worker requests (Oh, hi co-worker, I don’t mean your requests…).

I suppose it comes from a long history of freelancing, where delighting the client can make the difference between decent meals or ramen for a month.

On the other hand, I know myself well enough to understand if I do say yes to everything everyone wants, I’m a crankypants of the highest order.

When I need to rein in my generosity and helpfulness, I remind myself I’m not simply being selfish. Saying no once in a while benefits everyone, because a relaxed writer is a productive writer.

Beware the Temptation of New Employee Overcompensation

It’s particularly difficult for people with new jobs or those just entering the workforce to dial back on the generosity.

It’s really tempting to agree to everything anyone asks of you in order to make a good impression.

Unfortunately, that approach can backfire.

  1. You’re vulnerable to Takers. Remember: Takers are willing to impose on just about anyone, and new employees who may have an extra hard time saying no are particularly vulnerable.

  2. You could appear inconsistent. If you’re mainly agreeing to do things to gain the validation and acceptance of your co-workers, be prepared to agree to everything for the rest of your time at the organization. If your agreeability peters out, people will wonder why you’re suddenly so standoffish and unwilling to help out.

  3. You may appear disingenuous. Doing things for co-workers is a popular form of social currency, but it’s easy to take it too far and end up looking like you’re simply trying to get people to like you. That won’t get you off to a great start at a new job.

Whether you’ve had the same job for decades, just landed a new one or are a newly minted member of the workforce, take some time to figure out how to manage your generosity. It’s an important part of being a good asset to your company — without sacrificing your sanity.  

Your turn: How do you avoid generosity burnout?

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She swears that time she brought in donuts wasn’t a secret plea for validation.

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