Prosocial Behavior

First, a quick anecdote.

Wharton professor Adam Grant once conducted a study involving doctors, nurses, and two different signs he taped above hand-washing stations at a hospital.

One version read, “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases,” while the other read, “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.” When Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station, it revealed that doctors and nurses used 45% more hand soap and sanitizer when the sign referred to patients rather than themselves.

Isn’t that fascinating?

What if companies could harness the motivation to help others and use it to boost productivity and happiness in the workplace?

Grant believes the desire to help others is the greatest untapped source of human motivation. Focusing on how our work benefits other people’s lives has the power to make us more productive compared to when we work exclusively to help ourselves.

So let’s cover the basics.

What is prosocial behavior?

Prosocial behavior is voluntary behavior intended to benefit another person or society. People often associate it with altruistic behavior – which is accurate – but it can also be the result of practical concerns spurred by self-interest. Prosocial behavior can include volunteering, donating, assisting in an emergency or simply sharing, whether or not a person expects reciprocity.

In other words, prosocial is the opposite of antisocial. Humans are social by nature, and thereby expected to act prosocially toward others in groups. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that one of the most important social groups we belong to nowadays is the company we work for.

How can prosocial behavior benefit a company’s bottom line?

Social science researcher Michael Norton did a TED Talk on “How to Buy Happiness” a few years back. In it, he spoke of an experiment he conducted involving two sales teams to see the effects of prosocial behavior within companies.

On one sales team, employees were each given 15€ to spend on themselves. On the other, individuals were given 15€ to spend on one another and ended up purchasing a piñata that they broke apart as a team.

The return on investment ended up looking like this:

  • 15€ for personal use → 4.5€ in sales
  • 15€ for prosocial use → 78€ in sales

Strangely, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Humans thrive in communities. Though our primary instincts may be to protect ourselves and our immediate families, we still depend on people outside of our immediate groups for food, protection, and shelter. At work, employees depend on one another to lead the team and the company towards success, for the benefit of all.

A group with a united vision and goal is much more powerful than an individual with the same. So leveraging this desire to care for and give back to the community or to colleagues is surprisingly critical for creating strong corporate culture.

How does prosocial behavior lead to employee happiness?

It turns out our brains are wired to reward us for prosocial acts.

Scientists have proven that the rewards networks in our brains are engaged the same way when we receive monetary rewards as when we choose to donate money to charitable organizations. Corporate giving encourages employees to associate those positive feelings with their organizations and even more specifically to their roles at the company. This helps employees feel more committed to their team and corporate vision.

A Harvard experiment revealed that employees who were allowed to donate $100 to a charity on behalf of the company reported greater work happiness and job satisfaction. Another study involving survey data from 136 countries similarly proved that prosocial spending consistently results in greater happiness.

If companies are seeking to boost employee happiness through positive workplace culture, prosocial initiatives are very effective ways to get there.

Helping Employees Give Back

The truth is, companies don’t need to commit a lot of time or money to helping employees give back to their community.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as rewarding employees with money to go toward buying gifts for one another rather than to spend on themselves. Companies can also commit to matching any employee donations to charity organizations, or offer up wall space in the office so employees can post volunteering activities for teammates to participate in if they like. Instead of offering material gifts for birthdays and holidays, companies can offer the option of charity gift cards so employees can repurpose their gifts to help others worldwide. Of course, there’s also the classic: organize team outings to volunteer in your community.

Companies that make it a point to support prosocial objectives & corporate social responsibility in the workplace are giving employees one more reason to look forward to going to work everyday. Employees will support the success of a company that cares for more than itself, and a prosocial sentiment might even help elevate the organization’s vision and brand.