Why Your Office Isn’t Doing You Any Favors

PAFF_032516_NoFavors_newsfeatureThe business world is not known for being warm and fuzzy, but new research demonstrates that the workplace really can stifle generous behavior.

“In five studies, using both attitudinal and behavioral measures, we consistently found that people primed to think of themselves in an organizational context (e.g., co-worker) felt less motivated to reciprocate, and did reciprocate than those in an otherwise parallel personal (e.g., friend or acquaintance) situation,” writes Stanford University researchers Peter Belmi and Jeffrey Pfeffer.

Previous research has shown that reciprocation is a strong, and often automatic, social norm. Studies have shown that the norm of reciprocity is so strong and automatic that people will reciprocate favors to strangers, under anonymity, and even when the favor benefits someone not liked. If reciprocity is such an important, automatic component of social behavior, why don’t we do it at work? Belmi and Pfeffer hypothesized that, in general, organizations might prompt behavior that’s more calculating, impersonal, and future-oriented.

“We expect that in organizational contexts, people would be more strategic and calculating about whom to help, deciding on the basis of who might be useful and relevant to them in the future,” they write. “Therefore, we expect that people in organizational contexts will or will not return favors contingent on whether they see the other as being or not being useful to them in the future.”

The researchers designed five studies to compare how people would respond to a favor in a workplace setting compared to a personal one. Across all the studies, the researchers predicted that people would be relatively less motivated to return favors in a business environment.

In one of the experiments, 325 participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental conditions. They read a short prompt where someone they knew, either a friend or an acquaintance depending on the condition, took them out for dinner. In the workplace condition, participants read that either a friend or acquaintance from work had treated them for dinner. After reading the vignette, participants were asked to rate whether they would feel obligated to reciprocate the favor.

As hypothesized, people reported less of a desire to return the favor when it occurred in a professional context. This was true regardless of whether the favor was for a friend of a casual acquaintance.

Another study was designed to try to test reciprocity in a more realistic setting. The researchers recruited 120 participants to complete a series of surveys and tasks online. After completing the experiment, participants received a thank you message from the experimenters telling them that they would be getting a slightly higher payment than expected for their time ($2.00 instead of $1.50). Half of the messages thanked participants for their work (i.e., “thank you for your service as an Assistant today”) while the other messages thanked participants more personally (i.e., “I wanted to do you a favor as a way of thanking you personally”).

Participants were then asked if they would be willing, as a favor, to help out the lab by completing one more short survey without any compensation.

Around 23% of participants offered to return the favor if they’d received a thanks for their work. In contrast, around 43% of those who were thanked personally offered to lend a hand.

Overall, the evidence from this study suggest that self-interested, calculating environment of the office trickles down to the interpersonal level. People who would be happy to lend a helping hand outside of work may be “more strategic and calculating about whom to help, deciding on the basis of who might be useful and relevant to them in the future.”



Belmi, P., & Pfeffer, J. (2015). How “organization” can weaken the norm of reciprocity: The effects of attributions for favors and a calculative mindset. Academy of Management Discoveries1(1), 36-57. doi: 10.5465/amd.2014.0015

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