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Workers who do a lot of favors for colleagues are not only popular but productive too, study finds

September 1, 2004

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

In the midst of this season of giving, a new study finds that, when it comes to doing favors for colleagues at work, it pays to give and receive -- and the more the better.

Research in the Oct./Nov 2003 issue of the Academy of Management Journal probes a dilemma that confronts workers when colleagues ask for help with on-the-job tasks: doing favors for co-workers may make you popular but at the expense of your own job ratings. How to reconcile one consideration with the other?

The new study offers a rather surprising answer: the more favors you do, the less likely it is that your productivity will suffer. Concludes the report's author, Francis J. Flynn of Columbia University, who studied favor exchange in 161 employees of a large telecommunications firm, "Infrequent, generous patterns of favor exchange are more deleterious to productivity than are frequent, generous patterns."

In other words, when it comes to doing on-the-job favors, don't be afraid to dive in.

Says Prof. Flynn: "Many people feel awkward when it comes to favor exchange on the job. They may be against it in principle, or they may think that asking for help will reflect adversely on their competence, or they may be afraid that doing favors will demand too much of their time. This research suggests that it pays to try to overcome that awkwardness."

As the study puts it, "Employees may be better off in terms of both status and productivity if they increase the frequency with which they exchange favors with their co-workers rather than worry about the extent to which such exchanges are balanced."

Flynn reached that conclusion through a survey of 161 telecom engineers plus a review of their individual productivity records. The engineers, stationed at company headquarters, belonged to eight teams, each of which handled technical problems that arose in a particular part of the country. When a branch office reported a problem, it was directed to the appropriate team and assigned to a team member. The engineers worked in individual cubicles in an otherwise open space.

In a confidential survey, workers were asked to rate each of their fellow team members on two aspects of favor exchange -- first, the frequency of favors between the respondent and the team member, ranging from 1 ("very infrequently") to 7 ("very frequently); and, second, who gives and gets and how much, rated from 1 ("I have received far more than I have given") to 7 ("I have given far more than I have received.")

In addition, respondents rated team members on social status, through questions like "How well respected is this person at work?" and "How valuable are this person's contributions at work?" and "How much influence does this person exert over decisions at work?" Responses ranged from 1 ("not respected at all," "not valuable at all," "does not affect decisions") to 7 ("respected a great deal," "extremely valuable," "has a great deal of influence").

Finally, the study drew on official company ratings of each respondent's productivity, consisting of four measures of quantity (number of jobs completed, tech reports drafted, hours logged, and technical drawings produced) and four ratings for quality (efficiency, number of errors committed, percentage of deadlines met, and expenditures per job).

Flynn found that that the average frequency of favor exchange between any two team members was about 3.5 on a scale of 1 ("very infrequently") to 7 ("very frequently"). In other words, a fair number of favors were being bestowed and received among these engineers -- for frequent exchangers several a day. Common types of favors included providing help in solving a problem, giving a second opinion, or simply providing help to someone who was swamped.

Unsurprisingly, doing favors enhanced social status. Workers who exchanged favors only infrequently got an average social-status rating of about 3 on a scale of 1 to 7. In contrast, high-frequency exchange elicited an average social-status rating of about 4 for workers viewed by colleagues as moderately generous and 5 and above for those viewed as highly generous.

Flynn also found frequency of favor exchange to be strongly related to productivity, although in a more surprising and complicated way. For workers who exchanged favors often, productivity reached its peak when, in the view of a worker's colleagues, giving and receiving were close to being in balance and giving had a slight edge. Productivity declined as giving outweighed receiving.

Compared to this high-frequency group, workers who exchanged favors infrequently were more productive only when they received more than they gave. Their productivity was lower when giving and receiving were roughly in balance and much lower when they gave more than they received.

Does the productivity of the high-frequency group simply reflect superior individual skills and knowledge that enable some workers to be generous to colleagues while compiling strong job ratings for themselves? To test this, Flynn controlled for a number of factors that could contribute to high productivity, such as tenure, job level, prior level of productivity, and amount of higher education. Even with these factors taken into account, frequency of favor exchange had a strong impact on both social status and productivity.

Why does frequent favor exchange result in better productivity than infrequent exchange? Flynn offers two principal reasons -- efficiency and trust.

Efficiency. "As the reciprocal exchange of benefits increases in frequency," he writes, "the actors involved should expect to achieve a more efficient exchange of resources because each learns more about the other actor's underlying interests and values. Through trial and error, then, both actors come to understand what can be gained through increased resource sharing with one another."

Trust. Employees grow less hesitant to do big favors, Flynn reasons, as the frequency of exchange with another employee increases. "This increased leeway in favor exchange, in turn, will enable employees to perform their jobs more effectively because they will be better able to handle problems of varying size; that is, they may request more substantial favors that help them perform their assigned tasks without worrying about the burden of outstanding obligation."

"In short," Flynn adds, "a pattern of frequent favor exchange increases our willingness to help our colleagues with whatever amount of assistance they need when they need it most."

The Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed publication now in its 46th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with over 13,000 members in 90 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, the Academy of Management Executive, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
Christian Science Monitor. It Pays to Give. (Monday, December 15, 2003).
Gannett News Service. Favors bring favor on the job. (Wednesday, December 24, 2003).
The Economist. The gift relationship. (Saturday, April 10, 2004).
The Palm Beach Post. Surprise! helping others hikes your popularity, productivity. (Monday, January 12, 2004).
The Wall Street Journal. The jungle: Focus on recruitment, pay and getting ahead. (Tuesday, August 31, 2004).

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