How to Succeed Professionally by Helping Others

Research shows that even if the rewards aren't immediately apparent, contributing to the success of others pays off in the long run.
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Kat Cole started helping out early. Raised by a single mother of three who held three jobs to support the family, Cole entered the workforce as soon as it was legal. At 15, she started selling clothes at a mall. At 17, she added a second job at a restaurant—first as a hostess and then as a waitress. After juggling these jobs through high school, Cole became the first person in her family to attend college. She studied engineering and planned to go to law school, but those aspirations would soon be shattered.

The restaurant was Hooters, and Cole continued working there in college. When a cook quit, she volunteered to fill in. When a manager departed, she didn’t hesitate to cover that role too. By age 20, her restaurant responsibilities were so consuming that she failed her classes and dropped out of school.

There’s little doubt that Cole’s helpfulness paid off for Hooters. By filling in for a cook and a manager, she prevented long wait times and maintained customer service standards. Indeed, research shows that in restaurants, the more often employees help, the higher their revenue, operating efficiency, cleanliness, and customer satisfaction. This evidence holds up in a wide range of industries, from banking and manufacturing to healthcare and retail: helping behaviors play an important role in organizational effectiveness.

Unfortunately, when people like Kat Cole step up to help, they seem to make their organizations better at their own expense. In professional settings, it’s all too easy to take generosity for granted, especially when it comes from women. In a series of studies, NYU psychologists Madeline Heilman and Julie Chen found that volunteering to help colleagues boosted performance evaluations and rewards for men, but not women.

Simmons management professor Joyce Fletcher refers to helping behaviors by women as disappearing acts, as they often vanish without proper credit or reciprocity. “When a man helps a colleague, the recipient feels indebted to him and is highly likely to return the favor. But when a woman helps out, the feeling of indebtedness is weaker,” Sheryl Sandberg observed in Lean In. There’s no need to reciprocate, because “she wants to help.”

Wanting to help may have stalled Kat Cole’s education, but it’s also the force that accelerated her career. At age 32, Cole was named the president of a company called Cinnabon, Inc. She is now 35, and the company reached $1 billion in global branded sales last year. Although Cole’s helpfulness didn’t necessarily reap rewards right away, it paid dividends over time.

In my book Give and Take, I report evidence that being a “giver” who enjoys helping others can be inefficient in the short run but surprisingly productive in the long run. Givers tend to start out with lower sales revenue and lower medical school grades. In sales, givers often put their customers’ needs above their own sales targets. In medicine, before big exams, givers are so busy helping their friends study that they fail to fill the holes in their own understanding. Yet after a year in sales, the highest revenue belongs to those same generous people, and by the end of medical school, the top grades belong to the students with the most passion for helping others.

When I wrote the book, I attributed the long-term success of givers to two major forces: relationships and motivation. From a relationship perspective, givers build deeper and broader connections. When a salesperson truly cares about you, trust forms, and you’re more likely to buy, come back for repeat business, and refer new customers. From a motivation perspective, helping others enriches the meaning and purpose of our own lives, showing us that our contributions matter and energizing us to work harder, longer, and smarter. When medical students focus on helping others, they’re able to weather the slings and arrows of long hours and devastating health outcomes: they know their colleagues and patients are depending on them.

Beyond relationships and motivation, Kat Cole’s story reveals a third reason why helping others can yield long-term benefits: learning. By volunteering to help with different roles, she acquired a set of knowledge and skills. “When the cook quit, I learned how to run the kitchen, and when the manager quit, I learned how to run a shift,” Cole says.

At the time, Hooters was expanding internationally. At age 19, Cole was invited to Australia to open the first Hooters restaurant there. Although other candidates had college degrees and more experience, “I was one of the few people who had worked every job in the building,” Cole explains. “I was in the right place at the right time with a company that was growing. But at the same time, I’d worked my buns off to be known as someone who could get the job done… I genuinely wanted to help.”

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Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He is the author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

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