Employees Help Less in Tough Times

A study finds that, during an economic downturn, employees are much less willing to help their colleagues.

IT’S NO SECRET that when employees voluntarily help each other in the workplace—to promote team goals, help co-workers meet tight deadlines, or cover other workers’ hours when scheduling conflicts arise—it has a positive impact on the organization’s performance. But a study finds that, during an economic downturn, employees are much less willing to help their colleagues.

That happens because they develop a “zero-sum” view of success when they feel that their livelihoods could be threatened, according to the paper’s co-authors Nina Sirola, a postdoctoral fellow at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore; and Marko Pitesa of Singapore Management University. In other words, they view one person’s success as another’s loss.

Individuals are more likely to have a "zero-sum" view of success during a bad economy.

Sirola and Pitesa conducted four studies to confirm this finding. In the first, they analyzed data from surveys of 59,694 re­spondents in 51 countries over 17 years, available through the World Values Survey. In their second and third experiments, they asked employees in the U.S. to read articles describing the country’s economy as either improving or declining; then the researchers asked the employees to self-report their workplace helping behaviors.

In a fourth experiment, they asked freelance professionals from 47 countries—all members of Upwork, an online platform for freelanc­ers—to read articles with either positive or negative views of the econ­omy. Then they gave them opportunities to help fellow professionals.

In all four studies, the researchers found that individuals are more likely to have a zero-sum view of success during a bad economy, and their helping behaviors decline as a result.

The message for business leaders? “Managers should …develop a strong cooperative or collective culture and emphasize it when tough times hit,” the co-authors write. By emphasizing the close-knit, helping culture of the organization, managers can create a “buffer” against the negative effect an economic downturn can have on employee behavior.

“Economic downturns undermine workplace helping by promoting zero-sum construal of success” appeared online ahead of print July 12 in the Academy of Management Journal. It can be downloaded at ink.library.smu.edu.sg/lkcsb_research/4957.