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/

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.



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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,

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,

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,

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,; 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),

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.

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

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,

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

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,

15. N. Duarte, “Broaden Your Influence by Adapting How You Listen,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Sept. 21, 2022,

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,

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

18. D. Sull and C. Sull, “How to Fix a Toxic Culture,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Sept. 28, 2022,

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