A new study may support your lazier instincts: Swedish researchers have found that helping coworkers may trip up your own productivity by creating distractions you need to recover your focus from.
But that's short term thinking. There are a few other factors to consider before you go exclusively "every man for himself."
Here's how extending a hand might boost your career—and a few ways to make sure it won't hurt you:
1. You'll cement relationships
You never know when you might need help on the job—or a reference for your next one. A grateful coworker will be more likely to have your back when you need something. And the team building can be channeled into future projects: a greater sense of trust and a built-in readiness to help each other can boost productivity the next time you're working in groups. It's also a great antidote for competitive and stressful work environments.
2. You'll build a reputation of a team player
While it's important to draw boundaries on your time for the sake of your own work, it looks great in your boss's eyes to be prioritizing the health of your team and its projects, not just your part of the work.
It also helps you create a united front, if problems arise: if you and your coworkers are encountering the same issues and talking about it, it's much more powerful to seek a solution from a manager together than if any one person brings it up.
3. You'll gain better understanding of company processes
Help your coworker—you might just learn something. Teaching another person about something you know, be it software or a personal trick for cold calling, articulating what you know can help you better understand those skills yourself. It can also make you more aware of what you don't know.
And if a problem's totally new to you, or outside of your normal realm of operations, helping your coworker can give you a peak into a side of the business you wouldn't otherwise get to encounter. You can never know too much about how your company runs.
And three ways to keep your helpfulness from sabotaging you:
1. Value your time
It's great to be available to your team members, but try to not be too available: be sure to mention any hard stops you have whenever meeting with someone, and don't be afraid to say no or ask to speak another time if you're too busy to pitch in. Don't sacrifice your own work!
2. Be a little less approachable
It's great to be helpful, but if half your office starts dropping by to talk about their issues, you're going to expend a lot of mental energy refocusing on your own to-do list.
Try to set aside time for discussing issues in advance and ask "walk ins" to come back at a designated time. Wearing headphones while you work—even if you're not listening to anything!--can make passersby think twice before disturbing you, while a pile of books on the chair in front of your desk can shorten visiting time. Sneaky, but effective.
3. Don't assume responsibility that's not yours
It's not very neighborly to flat out say no—so try "referring" instead! If you're truly too busy, tell a colleague that you have your hands full at the moment, but so-and-so in research could probably help them out.
And if you find you're getting low level questions, or requests for help outside of your area of expertise (ie. IT issues, or questions about vacation time) don't waste your time doing someone else's job—refer, refer, refer!
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