Economic downturns undermine workplace helping by promoting a zero-sum construal of success

Marko PITESA, Singapore Management University


Workplace helping is essential to the success of organizations and economies. Given the economic benefits of helping, it seems important that during difficult economic periods the amount of helping does not decline. In this research, we propose and show that it does. We argue that cues that signal the economy is performing poorly prompt a construal that the success of one person implies less success for others. This zero-sum construal of success in turn makes employees less inclined to help. Four studies found evidence consistent with our theory. Study 1 found that worse economic periods are associated with a more zero-sum construal of success using data from 59,694 respondents surveyed across 51 countries and 17 years and objective indicators of their macroeconomic environments. Studies 2 and 3 were experiments among employees of U.S. organizations that found an induced perception that the U.S. economy was performing poorly led to a more zero-sum construal of success and made employees less inclined to help. Study 4 was an unobtrusive experiment among freelance professionals from 47 countries that found that participants' perception that the economy in their country was in a downturn was associated with a more zero-sum construal of success and less helping behavior. This research demonstrates the importance of bridging the macro-micro divide in organizational sciences and considering the impact of macroeconomic changes on individual employee psychology and behavior.