Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Help People Even When It Doesn't Benefit You

In any seminary or social sciences class, this statement would put you well ahead of other people. In the work world, your managers would love it if you did this, but the reason I chose to explore it today is that most people don’t. It’s not that we’re surrounded by heartless self-centered assholes (although that is the case for some folks), its that we all have a job to do, and taking time away from doing your job not only doesn’t benefit you, but it could actually hurt you at review time or even within the hour if you have a close deadline.

Office life doesn’t support altruism very well. When I worked at Microsoft, no one was very forthcoming about helping me when I needed it. Not even, really, my boss. The attitude was that if you didn’t know it, then maybe you shouldn’t be here. Unfortunately, that also extended to say, passwords and where the bathroom was.

Now, this is not to say Microsoft is a bad place. Every group there is different, and I have several friends having a great time working there. The group where I worked, however, frowned upon altruism, valued Halo (and then later Halo 2) skills, and watched and dissected the TV show The Apprentice as part of their culture. I spent a lot of time dead in Halo (and Halo2) watching the other people run and strafe. I still shiver at first person shooters as a result. I also get a little freaky in June and January, because these were the months when emails stopped being returned, people avoided you in the halls, and everyone was out to be as successful as they could during the month preceding reviews and evaluations.

The point is, it was a competitive atmosphere. It’s an extreme example, because its likely that where you work the receptionist, Mary, who changes out the toner and transfers your phone calls is unlikely to be working directly against you for victory in a video game or to close you out from a percentage of bonus by being ineffectual close to review time. However, she does have to manage calls and handle toner, and if she’s going to take time away from her goals—the ones she’s paid for and judged on—she needs a really good reason. It either needs to be part of her job, or worth her while.

Hence this post. See, you could help Mary when you need help, and in the transactional nature of the thing, you’re going to be doing something kinda big, especially if what you want from her is kinda big. And maybe Mary doesn’t need a big favor just now? Asking exactly when you need help is going to happen—somethings are just unforeseen—but how cool would it be if Mary was willing to help you without you having to offer something immediate to her? How cool would it be if the Office Manager, the IT guy, or your boss felt the same way?

Now this technique isn’t going to change the entire culture, and it’s certainly not going to change the culture you can change overnight. But it will change some culture, and, used in conjunction with the concept of being an information nexus (discussed in future posts), can become viral…once people see the value of it, they often emulate it because they get what they want.

And here’s the big technique: do something nice for Mary weeks ago. Now you’re wondering where I include the blueprints for the time machine. If I had a time machine, I’d be on a beach somewhere with Einstein; I would imagine that you haven’t really experienced the universe like you would if Einstein was putting suntan lotion on your back. But I digress.

This isn’t something to do when you need something. This is not to say that you can’t ask when you need something, that would in fact be silly, and, oddly, a lot of people fail because they don’t. But that is another post about the transactional nature of communication and interaction, and that is for another day.

This is more about laying the groundwork so that future transactional communications favor your goals. In non-fancy language, do this now, even when you don’t have any need for it. For one thing, it’s just a nice thing to do. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind wasting 10 perfectly good minutes to make another human being happy, this is the right task for you. Secondly, however, for the investment of just 10 minutes (or less), when you’re really jammed up, Mary is going to come through for you, or help you find someone who can. It’s not altruism for the sake of altruism, although I suppose it could be if you felt that way about it. The important part is, if you’re doing something to effectively pay it forward, you should be honest about it with yourself and the other person, so that they don’t have that icky sense of being manipulated when you’re really in dire need of their help.

This doesn’t mean you need to become Mary’s best friend. It also doesn’t mean that if she bores you silly with talk of her many surgeries, boyfriends/girlfriends or cats that you have to stick around and take it. But it does mean that you have think about what Mary might want in the immediate time frame, when you don’t want anything, and work out a way to help Mary get what she wants in a fashion that a) doesn’t have you hamming it up that you did it but b) has Mary well aware you’re responsible and c) is honest in its endeavor.

If you really are, at this moment, being nice to Mary because you want to be, that will shine through. If you are, however, doing this to butter up Mary for later, this is just as likely to shine through. It’s not a bad thing if you’re buttering up Mary so long as you acknowledge what you’re doing with yourself and with Mary.

This leads nicely into my next post on the topic of bribery...


  1. Microsoft is a particularly dysfunctional environment where they set up the rules to encourage competition and hence backstabbing, even within your own team. That’s just bad management: creating a game theory puzzle like that and turning it over to a bunch of software engineers is on the list of classic blunders right next to “get involved in a land war in Asia.” (John von Neumann was a major contributor to both game theory and computer science; the disciplines are related.) I hear Microsoft finally ended that insane policy a few years ago, and now just has to find some way to unlearn it from their corporate culture after ingraining it for a generation.

    Behavior that would be altruistic with a complete stranger whom you might never see again is not altruistic at all when you have shared goals. If management are even within commuting distance of sanity, they will arrange that when the company wins, all the employees win.

  2. Microsoft really is a bunch of little fiefdoms and where you are really makes a difference. I had the best and worst bosses of my career at Microsoft. Fortunately, I am one of those people who is generally nice for the heck of it and it does help me when I need help down the line.