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Culture Change

Good Samaritan

Chris Harrison

In life, people generally try to help one another. This may be rooted in behaviours adopted by early man, who realised that there was safety in numbers. Several millennia of subsequent human development have since overlaid social, moral and spiritual stimuli. But we all know that our willingness to help others is affected by the situations we find ourselves in. I saw this myself the other night while boarding a crowded flight. A person who didn’t understand her boarding card walked up the line asking for help and, while one kind soul stopped to assist her, everyone else in the line marched forward as if neither of them existed.

One of the most powerful factors in inhibiting helpfulness is a shortage of time. Back in 1973, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson conducted an experiment to investigate this. They chose participants who were studying to become religious leaders at Princeton University’s Theological Seminary. These people were first asked to fill out surveys assessing whether their motivations for being religious were intrinsic or extrinsic. They were then split into two groups. Half the participants were told to prepare a speech on job opportunities while the other half were told to prepare a sermon about the Good Samaritan. They were then scheduled to deliver their sermon or speech at an appointed place and time but, upon arrival, they were informed of a change in location. This put them under time pressure.

The researchers had also placed a person in obvious distress on the street between the two locations to assess the impact of time pressure on helpfulness.  In this ‘Good Samaritan’ experiment, only 40% of the seminarians stopped to offer some form of help to the person in distress. Moreover, the seminarians who had prepared a sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan were only slightly more likely to help that person.

The study highlighted the significance of situational variables in determining helping behaviour and should help us to understand why cooperation rather than collaboration tends to be the behavioural norm in any workplace. Unless people are tied together by a physical process (as they are in a manufacturing environment) their propensity to help colleagues varies widely. So, how can we change this?

Recent studies have shown that practising gratitude in the workplace can lead to better relationships, improved collaboration, better communication and a more cohesive company culture. When employees feel appreciated and valued by colleagues – not just by employers – a positive feedback loop is created.

Our grandmothers were right when they placed importance on the simple mantra: ‘say please and thank you.’