The power of being nice: can prosocial motivation benefit your career?

New research challenges the notion that “nice guys finish last” and suggests that prosocial motivation can be an asset in the workplace

This article is republished with permission from China Business Knowledge, the knowledge platform of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. You may access the original article here.

Have you ever helped your colleagues or customers because you genuinely wanted to have a positive impact on their lives? If so, you have in you what is known as prosocial motivation – a desire to benefit others.

When individuals are motivated to improve the welfare of others and their organisation, they tend to feel a greater sense of social worth and meaning in their work, leading to increased psychological wellbeing. However, individuals with such a motivation may also be more prone to stress and burnout, which affects their psychological well-being and attitude toward their job or organisation.

“In the business world, many people believe that being nice could be a bad thing because others would take advantage of you, as in the saying ‘nice guys finish the last’, “ says Liao Huiyao, Assistant Professor at the Department of Management, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School.

Prof. Liao and his collaborators question this belief: Does being prosocially motivated promote or compromise one’s work performance and career success? Should individuals nurture or curb their prosocial tendencies at work? Should organisations select individuals with prosocial motives and encourage such a trait among their members?

The researchers sought to answer these questions in their latest study titled Feeling good, doing good, and getting ahead: A meta-analytic investigation of the outcomes of prosocial motivation at work. The study was conducted by Prof. Liao in collaboration with Prof. Rong Su and Dr. Thomas Ptashnik from the University of Iowa, and Prof. Jordan Nielsen from Purdue University, the United States.

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The researchers found that prosocial motivation generally benefits employee wellbeing, job performance and career success. Photo: Getty

Prosocial motivation vs. agreeableness

Previous studies about prosocial motivation using various conceptualisations and measurements have left this body of knowledge fragmented. To better understand the costs and benefits of prosocial motivation in the workplace, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis by analysing existing studies that contained 666 cases taken from a pool of 252 samples. These cases examined the relationship between prosocial motivation and work outcomes. Prof. Liao explains that a meta-analysis can help improve the quality of their findings through combining the results of multiple studies: “A larger sample size and increased statistical power allow for more accurate and reliable conclusions.”

The concept of “prosocial motivation” and “agreeableness” is often interchanged in daily life. But the study suggests these two are distinct forms of the broader term, “niceness.” Each is manifested in different ways. “We hope to improve the conceptual clarity of what prosocial motivations are, and bring consistency to the empirical findings on when prosocial motivations have positive or negative outcomes,” says Prof. Liao.

Compared with agreeableness, prosocial motivation can lead to prosocial behaviour that involves challenging others rather than solely pleasing them, according to the study. “Additionally, prosocial motivation is not necessarily altruistic and selfless,” he adds.

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Feeling good, doing good, getting ahead

After analysing the data, the researchers found that prosocial motivation generally benefits employee wellbeing, job performance and career success. “In other words, prosocially motivated people are feeling good, doing good and getting ahead in their career,” says Prof. Liao.

Drawing on previous studies, Prof. Liao summarises four main reasons why having prosocial motivations can benefit people in the workplace. Firstly, prosocially motivated people have a strong desire to help others, leading to a higher level of passion and a willingness to work harder.

Secondly, they tend to be more creative because they constantly seek ways to benefit others and the organisation.

Thirdly, individuals with prosocial motivations have better social capital, as the people they help are willing to reciprocate and offer them help in return.

Lastly, leaders are more likely to recognise their contributions and credit them for their work.

People with a global prosocial motivation view helping others as a core part of who they are and believe this aligns with their interests min.jpg
People with a global prosocial motivation view helping others as a core part of who they are and believe this aligns with their interests. Photo: Getty

Factors limiting the positive effects

Certain factors can limit or affect the positive effects of prosocial motivation. The first one is the origin of the motivation. “Prosocial motivation can have varying effects on work outcomes depending on whether it arises from personal values, or from external pressure or rewards,” Prof. Liao explains.

The former is known as discretionary motives, while the latter is known as obligatory motives. The study discovered that both types of prosocial motives predict prosocial behaviour in the workplace. However, the effect of these two motives on employee well-being and job performance varies. Discretionary prosocial motivation is more strongly associated with positive outcomes, while obligatory prosocial motivation has no significant impact.

The second factor is the level of generality – whether prosocial motives are applied on a global, contextual or positional level. Prof. Liao explains that being prosocial on a global level involves being helpful in any situation, while doing so on a contextual level means being willing to help people when the action is related to one’s career. Being prosocial on the positional level refers to helping people only when relevant to one’s current job situation.

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Prof. Liao notes that people with a global prosocial motivation view helping others as a core part of who they are and believe this aligns with their interests. These people may experience less emotional exhaustion when they have to balance their own needs with those of others.

The third factor pertains to the measurement of an individual’s job performance, which may involve objective or subjective evaluations. For example, objective indicators can be one’s daily sales performance while subjective indications can be leaders’ expectations. The study found that prosocial motivation is more strongly correlated with subjective task performance than objective ones.

The nature of prosocial behaviour can also influence the effects of prosocial motivations. Prof. Liao and his collaborators found that prosocial motivation was more strongly linked to affiliative prosocial behavior (such as providing emotional support) than to challenging prosocial behavior (such as pointing out the flaws in a coworker’s plan to ensure that team effectiveness is not compromised). However, a positive correlation still exists between prosocial motivation and challenging prosocial behaviour, which supports the argument that prosocial motivation is distinct from agreeableness.

Research results indicated that the popular mantra of “nice guys finish last” is more of a myth than a fact min.jpg
When “nice” is defined as “prosocially motivated,” the research results indicated that the popular mantra of “nice guys finish last” is more of a myth than a fact. Photo: Getty

Nice guys can finish earlier

When “nice” is defined as “prosocially motivated,” the research results indicated that the popular mantra of “nice guys finish last” is more of a myth than a fact. Employees with a strong motivation to help others are typically seen as valuable contributors in the workplace. Consequently, they may receive higher job performance evaluations and more opportunities for career advancement within the organisation.

“Individuals need not worry that helping others will harm their job performance and career growth. Instead, it is crucial for them to understand when and why their niceness is perceived positively,” Prof. Liao says.

Helping others can be demanding in terms of time and energy. Prof. Liao suggests that by focusing on benefiting instead of merely pleasing others, and by reaching out with an genuine intention rather than obligation, individuals can lend a hand without compromising their own work performance and efficiency.

From an organisation’s standpoint, encouraging and selecting employees with prosocial tendencies can benefit it in multiple ways. Such employees tend to have positive attitudes toward their work, enjoy better psychological well-being, and are more likely to help others, bringing competitive advantages to the organisation. “Prosocially motivated individuals are also more likely to challenge the status quo in ways that benefit organisations, which is essential for team and organisational success,” Prof. Liao adds.

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Prof. Liao expresses his interest in delving deeper into the impact of gender differences on the way prosocially motivated employees are perceived and rewarded within organisations. Additionally, he aims to continue his research on how individuals can be more strategic in their prosocial behaviour, as sometimes actively helping others may not lead to the desired outcomes. “By understanding when and how prosocial motivation is helpful at work, people and organisations can use it to their advantage,” he says.


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