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Giving Is Not a Zero-Sum Game


Giving Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

By Marilyn Ang Uy

When was the last time you voluntarily lent a hand to a co-worker? If it is not something you do very often, it is time to start.

In addition to generating goodwill between you and your colleague, there are a whole range of other advantages. The most important ones are the ability to protect yourself against emotional demands at work, and the nurturing of self-worth.

This news is especially relevant to those in the service sector, as it proves employees need not wait passively for their employers to protect their well-being. Instead, by engaging in voluntary and autonomous behaviours aimed at restoring the sense of self, such as helping co-workers, they can positively control their frame of mind.

At the organisational level, this will lead to improved customer satisfaction and business performance. In light of this, managers and leaders should strive to develop a culture of trust, support and respect – elements critical to fostering heedful relating that will result in staff cooperating and giving help to each other.

Surprisingly, the effects of being at the receiving end of any assistance from co-workers are not as positive as giving it. It in fact sends mixed messages. On one hand, it makes the person feel cared for. But on the other hand, it could imply incompetence, which could potentially affect self-esteem.

These findings were uncovered from a recent study done by my colleagues and I on how the gesture of helping can buffer the negative effects of surface acting. Surface acting refers to displaying feelings that we are not actually experiencing, in order to abide by rules that govern the office environment. (For example, if I am feeling frustrated, I would suppress my feelings of frustration and instead show positive feelings towards customers, and continue to do so even if the customers become hostile and angry.)

With firms increasingly streamlining service interactions to prioritise speed and efficiency, surface acting becomes more pervasive and common among service employees.

In the study, 102 full-time customer service representatives (CSR) based in a call centre in Singapore completed paper-and-pencil surveys for five week days. These questionnaires were answered at the start of the day before work commenced, at the end of the workday, and before they went to bed.

Analysis of the surveys found that individuals who performed surface acting on a daily basis experienced emotional exhaustion at the end of day. But it did not end there. The fatigue spilled over to the next day, preventing them from being whole-heartedly engaged with their work.

However, CSRs who actively lent others a helping hand at work could guard against the negative effects of surface acting. Interestingly, receiving help from colleagues did not produce the same results.

The implications are significant, particularly in societies that are shifting towards a service-oriented economy. Many such companies now place importance on speed and efficiency, imposing expectations on their staff to deliver high-quality customer interaction.

In turn, employees are constantly expected to project a positive, happy image, and suppress any negative emotions when they interface with clients. If not addressed, the end result is unhappy staff and disgruntled customers, which ultimately damage bottom lines.

Some of the ways to prevent this include ensuring employees have enough rest days so they can relax, and even go on vacation, to mitigate the effect of burnout. Time-off during the work day is also advisable, for instance in the form of lunch hours.

Past research has shown that those who involve themselves in respite activities during their breaks, such as taking a stroll in a park or reading a book they like, are able to top-up their emotional strength and subsequently, have positive customer engagements later.

But this is not enough. Given how we spend most of our waking hours at work in Singapore, there is a need to understand and discover some restorative activities and interactions that can be done during office hours to help maintain good emotional health.

One significant conclusion we can draw from our study is that only self-initiated, autonomous activities, particularly giving help, can reinforce an individual’s emotional bank relating to the sense of self that was affected because of surface acting.

Here, the concept of autonomy and voluntariness is key. It allows the employee to shape the context of his work, giving him a sense of control and the realisation that his destiny is in his own hands.

Another issue not to be ignored is that helping too has its downsides. If taken too far, it could be a case of too-much-of-a-good-thing, making it unfavourable. More research needs to be done to understand how to prevent outcomes such as spreading oneself too thin, or being regarded as a pushover as a result of being too helpful.

Yet, at the end of the day, it is clear that giving help is not a zero-sum game. While there could be downsides, the benefits outweigh them. Maybe it is time to head to your colleague’s cubicle and render some help?

About the author

Marilyn Ang Uy is Assistant Professor of Strategy, Management & Organisation at Nanyang Business School, NTU

This commentary was published in The Business Times on 23 December 2016.

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