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What You Get From Giving

By Derek Irvine

Recognize This! – Research suggests that supporting others is related to greater energy and well-being. By enhancing meaningfulness, employees and employers can amplify these benefits.

A potential pitfall of engagement initiatives is to overemphasize the role that companies have in motivating employee performance, while minimizing the active role that employees often take in creating and directing their experiences at work.

One of the more impactful things employees do is to step outside of their formal positions and devote extra effort to help their colleagues or support the larger organization. It turns out there are a number of benefits to this set of workplace behaviors, supported by a couple of recent studies, and expanding upon many of the positive benefits of giving that Adam Grant has written about.

In one study, researchers examined the daily behavior of a group of employees in a service management firm. They found that employees who went above and beyond to help others (known as organizational citizenship behavior) also tended to experience higher levels of energy at the end of the day. This was contrary to a common resource depletion perspective that would have them feeling exhausted and tired from all the extra effort.

How did they get more energy from doing more at the office? The data suggest employees experienced a greater sense of meaning in their work as a result of the support they provided to others, as well as the autonomy involved in deciding to provide that support. In turn, meaningfulness and autonomy translated into greater levels of energy, buffering the potential negative impacts of stress or burnout from engaging in greater amounts of work.

There are some additional implications of providing support offered by recent neuroscience research. Functional brain imaging revealed that giving support was associated with reduced activation in areas responsible for stress, as well as increased activation in areas related to both reward and caregiving. Interestingly, receiving support was unrelated to activity across these three areas, suggesting the importance of individuals taking an active “giving” role in creating these benefits.

The lesson across these studies speaks to the importance of generating meaningfulness at work, specifically in terms of the contribution and significance of supporting others, and the benefits to individual well-being and energy that can also help drive the employee experience and a range of organizational outcomes. The creation of meaningfulness through supportive relationships at work is at the core of what it means to work human. It presents unique opportunities to focus on the intersection of organizational practices and individual initiative in creating and embedding meaningfulness into the company culture. In this manner, companies can recognize and amplify many of the positive benefits noted in the research above, with a shared mindset of contributing and gaining greater levels of energy.

Rarely do we place equal emphasis on the role both employer and employee play in creating meaningful work experiences. We need to shift our thinking because they are truly a joint venture between employees and employers.

What has your experience been when you’ve gone above and beyond? How did your company support that?