The Unequal Rewards of Peer Support at Work

Research shows that men benefit more from supporting colleagues than do women.

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Stephanie Dalton Cowan/theispot.com

Supportive relationships with colleagues are critical to job satisfaction, retention, and productivity — but with the dramatic shift to remote work over the past few years, those ties have weakened for many employees.1 Our latest research suggests that as leaders focus on strengthening organizational culture and encouraging social ties, they should proceed with greater care and intentionality than they have in the past. The results of our investigation indicate that men may be earning a higher return on their social investments at work than women are.

Concerns about inequity in the way relationships are built and maintained in organizations are not new. Community-building and social support activities are rarely written into job descriptions or compensated, making them easy to overlook. Scholarship has previously highlighted the likelihood of gender bias in expectations and rewards for “organizational citizenship” and “emotional labor” behaviors at work.2 For example, research found that women are more likely than men to be asked to engage in extra-role activities such as organizing a holiday party, and they are more likely to say yes when asked — often at a cost to their career progression and job satisfaction.3

We set out to investigate employees’ experiences investing in — and their career benefits for providing — multiple forms of social support to coworkers. (See “The Research.”) We conducted a survey in late 2020, a time when social support was especially important. We collected data from 836 U.S.-based office workers across a variety of roles, company sizes, and industries. In order to explore equity issues, we recruited a split sample, with 438 men (52%) and 398 women (48%).

What Kinds of Social Support Do Men and Women Offer?

Workplace social support can take many forms, and prior research has identified five types: emotional assistance, esteem reinforcement, social companionship, information or advice, and instrumental help (that is, providing tangible goods or services).4 We identified 13 specific behaviors that fall into the support categories. In our survey, we asked participants to indicate which, if any, specific supportive behaviors they had engaged in on behalf of coworkers in the past month. This helped us see what employees were doing at a more granular level than standard high-level measures of social support allow.5 Both men and women reported that they had provided four or five different types of social support in the previous month, indicating an equivalent quantitative breadth.

However, there were clear gender differences in the qualitative aspects of social support. More women than men focused their efforts on listening, showing personal interest, and complimenting coworkers for their successes. (See “Gender Differences in Types of Social Support Behavior.”) Men reported offering career advice more frequently, as well as engaging in two of the least common types of support: helping a coworker fight an injustice, and organizing an online gaming meetup.

We grouped the behaviors by social support category. When we examined the data at the category level, we found that women reported providing more forms of emotional and esteem support, while men reported offering more forms of social companionship and slightly more instrumental support than women.

We also asked participants how often they provided any form of social support to colleagues, from less than once a month to several times a week. In addition, we asked how much these actions had increased or decreased since the start of the pandemic. Men reported a bigger increase in how often they supported others than did women, which suggests that the pandemic led them to step up their efforts; women, however, still reported offering support significantly more often than did men.

Differences in Return on (Social) Investment

Based on earlier research, we hypothesized that men and women might not experience recognition equally for being a supportive colleague at work. To test this, we created a measure of perceived organizational encouragement by asking whether employees were incentivized to help others at work and whether bonuses and promotions were tied to such behaviors. Men’s overall rating of the level of encouragement and rewards for social support available at work was 11% higher than women’s. Thus, the women in our study reported a higher level of investment (frequency of providing social support) than men but a lower potential return (organizational rewards and recognition). These findings indicate a lower social ROI for women.

This gender inequity is cause for concern, especially as women continue to display higher levels of occupational stress, as well as a greater willingness to leave jobs and switch employers.6 In separate regression analyses, we found that the single biggest predictor of job satisfaction in our sample — whether the respondent was male or female — was how much they felt their organization recognized and valued the social support they provided to others at work. The gender differences in social ROI may help explain why the men we surveyed were 12% more satisfied with their jobs than the women were.

The women in our study reported a higher level of investment in social support than men but a lower potential return in organizational rewards and recognition.

Concerns about inequity in social ROI extend to other demographic characteristics as well. Previous research, for example, has found that the emotional work done by people of color and underrepresented minorities is often underappreciated.7 While our sample distribution did not allow for detailed analyses by racial subgroup, we did see some indications of difference. For example, Black men rated their work environments as less rewarding for acts of social support than White men did (but both groups of men still rated them higher than White or Black women did).

Why Are Men Rewarded Differently From Women?

To be clear, our study design allows us to identify only correlation, not causation. However, based on our findings and those of other researchers, we believe there are at least two likely explanations for the gender discrepancies we identified in social ROI. The first is that the overall investment made by women may be less noticeable. The second is that the types of investments made by women may be valued differently from those made by men.

The types of support most commonly provided by women may be less valued in the implicit ways that organizations assess performance.

When women nurture others as part of their professional performance, it is often naturalized because such behavior conforms to cultural stereotypes for women.8 Those same nurturing behaviors might be overvalued when men perform them because they are less expected of men.9 Thus, discrepancies in the ROI between men and women may be due to inequitable approaches to detection (not seeing women’s efforts as clearly as men’s) and valuation (overcompensating men for lower relative contributions).

Moreover, the types of support most commonly provided by women may be less valued in the implicit ways that organizations assess performance. For example, we see in our data that women are more likely to go out of their way to welcome a new colleague, whereas men are more likely to provide career advice. Which behavior counts more? In some workplaces, instrumental forms of support may be viewed as more useful than other forms.10 If so, the discrepancies in ROI for women and men found in our study may be attributable to assigning greater value to behaviors that male colleagues are more likely to undertake.

What Managers Can Do

Leaders are searching for ways to strengthen the social integration of their organizations in the aftermath of the pandemic and ongoing remote and hybrid work arrangements.11 Simultaneously, the retention of women and racial and ethnic minority employees is a top issue.12 To build both a more supportive peer culture and improve equity, we suggest managers take the following actions.

Provide clarity about which behaviors count. Organizations must clarify which everyday employee behaviors they want to encourage and how they will be valued. For inspiration, they might consult the list of behaviors used in our study. But they shouldn’t stop there. It is critical to get input from a wide variety of employees to determine what types of support should be weighted highly in the eyes of organizational leaders. A good start would be conducting a companywide survey to learn what kinds of support people want in their work contexts and determine the extent to which they are currently receiving such support.

As companies gain clarity about what is worthy of reward, we sound a note of caution about incentivizing quantity over quality. Research has shown that providing help when asked, rather than proactively, tends to generate the most gratitude.13 Along with clarifying target behaviors, employers should prioritize offering support in a manner imbued with mutual respect, psychological safety, and humility.14

Make the invisible visible. To address concerns about inequitable rewards for supportive behavior, it is critical to make the invisible more visible. In one-on-one meetings, for example, managers might ask who, if anyone, has been particularly supportive to that employee and how. Or, as part of team after-action reviews, members might be asked to identify times when a teammate provided a form of support that moved them or a project forward.

Note that even when you make this effort to bring support into the light, it might still be harder to see the contributions of some groups of employees. Making the invisible visible will require training yourself and others to identify and reduce implicit bias in how you view the actions of others.

Provide training and education. Learning opportunities can help break old habits and promote new ones. It can be helpful to start with instruction on how to listen effectively. Many people lack this crucial communication skill, and research shows that in addition to being supportive on its own, good listening underlies the most effective delivery of social support.15 Activities that foster learning from those with different experiences can also be helpful. Role-playing exercises exploring different forms of social support may help people better understand the distinct value of each.

Revise performance management systems. If organizations want to distribute the production of social support fairly across the organization, they should embed metrics for those behaviors in their performance management systems.16 For example, those who go above and beyond expectations to support colleagues may receive bonuses, and their behaviors should be considered key criteria for advancement. Providing social support can be viewed as a shared responsibility to which all members must contribute.17

Though we have focused on rewards for supportive behavior, an important flip side is disincentivizing unsupportive acts among colleagues. It doesn’t take much bad behavior to undermine the relational culture of a whole team or organization.18 Just as those who support the needs of others should be rewarded, those who undermine or disparage colleagues should receive managerial intervention and correction.


Organizations are seeking ways to better retain women and members of underrepresented groups, reduce the isolation associated with remote and hybrid work, and bolster job engagement and satisfaction. To do so most effectively, they should reexamine how they define, encourage, identify, and reward socially supportive behaviors at work. Every employee deserves a high return for investing effort in their workforce community, regardless of their demographic characteristics.

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References

1. L. Gratton, “Why You Should Make Friends at Work,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Oct. 13, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu; “New Decade, New Direction,” The Institute of Leadership & Management, accessed March 20, 2023, www.institutelm.com; and “2022 Workforce Purpose Index: The Relationship Imperative,” PDF file (Seattle: Imperative, March 2022), www.imperative.com.

2. A.C. Klotz, M.C. Bolino, and M.G. Ahmad, “How Good Citizens Enable Bad Leaders,” MIT Sloan Management Review 62, no. 3 (spring 2021): 81-84; and L. ten Brummelhuis and J.H. Greenhaus, “Research: When Juggling Work and Family, Women Offer More Emotional Support Than Men,” Harvard Business Review, March 21, 2019, https://hbr.org.

3. L. Babcock, M.P. Recalde, and L. Vesterlund, “Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions,” Harvard Business Review, July 16, 2018, https://hbr.org.

4. A.E. Colbert, J.E. Bono, and R.K. Purvanova, “Flourishing via Workplace Relationships: Moving Beyond Instrumental Support,” Academy of Management Journal 59, no. 4 (August 2016): 1199-1223; and S. Moore, “Focus on Moments That Really Matter to Employees,” Gartner, Aug. 6, 2019, www.gartner.com.

5. Y.L. Bavik, J.D. Shaw, and X.-H. Wang, “Social Support: Multidisciplinary Review, Synthesis, and Future Agenda,” Academy of Management Annals 14, no. 2 (July 2020): 726-758.

6. A.S. Poswolsky, “How Leaders Can Build Connection in a Disconnected Workplace,” Harvard Business Review, Jan. 21, 2022, https://hbr.org; and J. Coffman, B. Bax, A. Noether, et al., “The Fabric of Belonging: How to Weave an Inclusive Culture,” PDF file (Boston: Bain & Co., 2022), www.bain.com.

7. A.A. Grandey, L. Houston III, and D.R. Avery, “Fake It to Make It? Emotional Labor Reduces the Racial Disparity in Service Performance Judgments,” Journal of Management 45, no. 5 (May 2019): 2163-2192.

8. L. Adkins and C. Lury, “The Labour of Identity: Performing Identities, Performing Economies,” Economy and Society 28, no. 4 (November 1999): 605.

9. C.C. Miller, “The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus,” The New York Times, Sept. 6, 2014, www.nytimes.com.

10. Y.M. Kundi, U. Khoso, and N. Adnan, “Instrumental Support, Relational Attachment, and Subjective Career Success: The Moderating Role of Personal Support,” Journal of Career Assessment 30, no. 4 (February 2022): 739-755.

11. N. Baym, J. Larson, and R. Martin, “What a Year of WFH Has Done to Our Relationships at Work,” Harvard Business Review, March 22, 2021, https://hbr.org.

12. S. Kiderlin, “Gender Equity at Work Is Stalling after ‘Mass Exodus’ of Women During Pandemic, New Research Finds,” CNBC, Oct. 26, 2022, www.cnbc.com.

13. C.M. Fisher, T.M. Amabile, and J. Pillemer, “How to Help (Without Micromanaging),” Harvard Business Review 99, no. 1 (January-February 2021): 123-127; H.W. Lee, J. Bradburn, R.E. Johnson, et al., “The Benefits of Receiving Gratitude for Helpers: A Daily Investigation of Proactive and Reactive Helping at Work,” Journal of Applied Psychology 104, no. 2 (February 2019): 197-213; and A. Beard, “You Shouldn’t Volunteer to Help Your Coworkers,” Harvard Business Review 97, no. 2 (March-April 2019): 30-31.

14. J. Sanchez-Burks and M. Sytch, “Reimagining the Office for Immensely Human Interactions,” MIT Sloan Management Review, June 7, 2021, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

15. N. Duarte, “Broaden Your Influence by Adapting How You Listen,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Sept. 21, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

16. B. Bax, N. Gosrani, and N. Jariwala, “To Help Women Stay and Thrive at Work, Focus on the ‘Texture’ of Inclusion,” Bain & Co., March 21, 2022, www.bain.com.

17. M.V. Abad and A. Wynn, “Building Resilience in Diversity and Inclusion Programs,” MIT Sloan Management Review, June 27, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

18. D. Sull and C. Sull, “How to Fix a Toxic Culture,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Sept. 28, 2022, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.

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