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Paying Helpful Behavior Forward In The Workplace

“In organizations that rely on collaborative work, managers can increase the helping behavior of team members—and thus project effectiveness—by increasing feelings of gratitude,” says Rosalind Chow, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory. “Put another way, when people feel grateful for help they have received, they are more likely to ‘pay it forward’ by helping others.”

Chow notes that it is fairly well understood how negative emotions reduce productivity, but that it is less clear in what way positive emotions improve productivity. She observes that current research suggests a dichotomy: some studies have found that individuals feel grateful when they acknowledge that another person has helped them to achieve a positive outcome, so that the less personal responsibility they have for an outcome, the more grateful they are to the person who has helped them. Other studies find that when people don’t feel personally responsible for an outcome, the less grateful they are for help.

To explore this problem, Chow designed two studies in which an experimenter provided help to individuals working on a problem solving task. Data from the studies suggest that individuals do not explain their successes as due to either their own effort and intelligence or due to help given by the experimenter. Instead, individuals can separate internal and external sources for success, thereby continuing to feel responsible for an outcome even while acknowledging having received assistance. Her paper, “Thanks, but No Thanks: The Role of Personal Responsibility in the Experience of Gratitude,” is currently under consideration at the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

“My work proposes that the perception of responsibility, rather than inhibiting the experience of gratitude, can instead enhance it,” Chow says. She adds that the data suggest that when managers give employees feedback on their performance, the feedback should acknowledge both how the employee received help from coworkers and the employee’s responsibility for a given outcome. The feelings of gratitude that the employee then has for his coworkers would lead him to be more helpful to others—gratitude expands the original helping act beyond the two original parties, potentially leading to a culture of helping that can increase workplace productivity.

“Gratitude doesn’t just make everybody happy—it makes everyone become happier.”

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