Encouraging Employees to Seek Help Leads to Stronger Job Performance, New Study Finds

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Research suggests respectful engagement can make a positive impact on work.

Jane Dutton

Employees who ask for help at work tend to do their jobs better, according to a new study from Michigan Ross Professor Jane Dutton and colleagues. And supervisors can take action to encourage that.

“​In work worlds where what we are asked to do is changing constantly, task are increasingly interdependent, and people are being asked to do more for less, seeking help from others  is increasingly important,” Dutton explained in a recent interview.

“Help involves providing technical, emotional, informational  and relational resources to people in need. Help is what enables effective learning and performance in organizations. Without help, we would be much slower and less effective in accomplishing what we need to accomplish.”

We know something about the reasons people hesitate to ask for help, such as a fear of appearing incompetent. But until now, very little research has addressed the flip side — what motivates people to seek help, and what happens when they do. The study’s authors — Dutton; Anat Friedman, CFO of a high-tech company; and Abraham Carmeli of Tel Aviv University and the University of Surrey — wanted to find out.

The researchers surveyed employees and supervisors at two points in time at a number of small- to medium-sized companies in Israel. They studied how willing employees were to ask for help , and the circumstances under which they would do so. They then assessed the relationship of these variables to supervisors’ assessments of employees’ job performance.

They drew two core conclusions:

  • When supervisors make an effort to treat their subordinates respectfully, those employees are more likely to seek help.

  • Employees who ask for help from supervisors and/or coworkers perform their jobs more effectively than those who do not.

The way in which supervisors and employees interact — what the paper calls “respectful engagement” — sets the stage, Dutton said. “Respectful engagement is a highly beneficial form of interpersonal treatment that creates all kinds of resources including energy, confidence, increases people's capacity to think, and creativity. Basically respectful engagement is a form of interacting that strengthens people from within,” she explained.

The study found that employees reporting more respectful engagement from supervisors were more likely to seek help at work, and in turn performed their jobs better. The study also found that respectful engagement with supervisors  became even more important when employees feel less “psychological safety” — that is, when they fear being judged or suffering other consequences.

So how can supervisors go about encouraging employees to seek help when it’s needed?

“Our research would suggest that a supervisor's conduct or behavior is really important in setting the right tone and sending the right signals that help-seeking is desired and safe to do,” Dutton said. “Supervisors are such powerful creators of the culture, I would imagine, what they say or don't say to create a sense of respect and affirmation with employees would open up or shut down efforts at help seeking.”

Specifically, supervisors can:

  • Make an effort to be psychologically present when interacting with employees — don’t get sidetracked by phones or other distractions.

  • Be attentive and notice employees’ emotional state.

  • Be a good listener.

  • Respond in a timely way to employees’ changing conditions.

  • Explicitly express the value of others’ opinions and ideas.

In addition, non-supervisory employees can also contribute to establishing a climate of respect, Dutton said. “As organizations flatten out and there are fewer hierarchical distinctions between people, respectful engagement ​is a critical means by which work peers can resource and strengthen people psychologically and physiologically, thus equipping them to perform and feel better at work.”

Although the study was done in a fairly specific set of circumstances — at smaller organizations in Israel — Dutton said there’s good reason to believe results would be similar elsewhere: “I would hypothesize that respectful engagement would be an even more potent signal of affirmation in larger, more impersonal settings, and thus even have a more powerful impact on people's willingness to seek help.”

Jane Dutton is the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Business Administration and Psychology and cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizations.

Media Contactmichiganrosspr@umich.edu