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Being busy overrides being ‘good’

Article provided by Steve Simpson & Stef du Plessis

Nowadays, it’s commonplace for people to report on how busy their workplace is.

We’ve seen decades of cost-cutting and increased efficiencies to a point where most of us are extremely stretched. A fascinating study conducted in 1973 however, might shed light on the significant downside to being busy. Read on…

Last year we conducted a major study of prevailing UGRs® (Unwritten Ground Rules) in organisations. From the 380 responses across 19 countries, one of the major findings was that stress in the workplace is high, yet relatively hidden.

Apparently, it is counterproductive to let others know you are stressed at work.

This finding has a range of important implications, one of which was heightened after reading about a fascinating study undertaken by John M Darley and C Daniel Batson in 1973.

The psychologists undertook an experiment with divinity students. The students were to walk to another building and give a talk to another group. Half the students were to talk about employment opportunities after graduation, the other half were to talk on the parable of the good Samaritan. These two groups were then further subdivided into two groups. One was told they were to hurry as they had just enough time to get to their talk, while the other subgroup was told they had ample time.

The experiment truly began when the students walked over to the other building. On the way, they walked past a man slumped against a wall. In fact, the man was a colleague of the experimenters. As the students walked past he coughed and groaned, obviously in need of assistance.

The subject of the students’ talk had no influence on the number who stopped.

The stunning finding was that there was a large difference in the students’ tendency to offer help, based on whether or not they were in a hurry. Incredibly, of those who thought they were late, only 10% stopped to help. Of those who thought they were not in a hurry, 63% stopped to assist.

Remember, these students were not randomly selected. These were seminarians whose beliefs were strong and dear to them. Yet these beliefs were overridden by an external instructor who told them they needed to hurry.

Does this happen at work? Is it possible that our work contexts have become so busy that the underlying UGRs include: around here, we are always in a hurry?

There is a good chance that in organisations that are characterised by their high levels of stress and ‘busyness’, there is internal and external documentation alluding to the organisation’s commitment to customers and staff.

Yet this study sheds light on what might gain highest priority.

If we are driven by the need to complete the next task, so as to get to the next one, there is a fair chance we will not be too open to helping others – whether these others are colleagues or customers.

It seems that pro-social norms are most likely to be realised when acting on those norms is convenient.

Proudly brought to you by the NSBC.