A New Year's resolution: Help yourself by helping others

Steve Kelman cites new research that offers yet another reason for managers to encourage a spirit of generosity.

Image from Shutterstock.com

Just before Christmas I posted (together with Chris Dorobek and Bill Arzt) a message from three of us fighting cancer, about how much the support of friends had meant to us in our fight against illness. In the post, we emphasized how the kindness of others helped us.

But recent research by Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia in Canada, along with several colleagues, including Michael Norton of Harvard Business School, presents a very dramatic supplementary message: Helping others makes the helper, not just the person being helped, happier and healthier. (Some of this research was featured in an op-ed in The New York Times on Christmas Day.)

In forthcoming work, Dunn and colleagues examine the effect of giving on a person's blood pressure level. In one study, among people with high blood pressure, participants were asked about the amount they donated to religious or political organizations, or to friends and family. Two years later, respondents who reported spending more money on others during the initial data collection had lower blood pressure than those giving less. In a second study, like the $20 bill experiment, people who had been diagnosed with high blood prior to the study were given three payments of $40 to spend for three consecutive weeks, and were randomly assigned to spend the payments on other people or themselves. Those assigned to spend on others had lower blood pressure when re-measured.

This research is directed at the effects of giving on the individual who gives. But one can put this in a managerial and organizational context as well. People in an organization whose work on the job -- or volunteer work that is organized through the workplace -- helps others may also reap the personal benefits of helping from their work-related activities. Google, for example, provides employees with an open invitation to apply for a bonus—not for themselves, but for a deserving co-worker, an example of giving on the job, though not exactly the same as helping customers outside the organization. Research by Dunn and her colleagues suggests that giving employees the opportunity to engage in spending on behalf of others may enhance job satisfaction and performance.

As I have discussed in earlier blog posts, an important way government managers can motivate employees (and one of the few managerial tools more available to government than to most private-sector managers) is by highlighting the contribution those employees' work makes to society. These new findings provide another reason for government managers to remind their employees that, in many cases, their work involves giving to others.

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