Have you ever stopped yourself from asking a colleague or boss for help because you had an underlying fear that you would come across as dumb? You know—that feeling where you thought the person you’re asking for assistance is secretly thinking, “Wow, who hired this person?” Well, new research shows that people who shy away from asking for advice because they think they’ll appear less competent are getting worked up for nothing—asking for guidance actually makes you seem more capable.
According to a study from the Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, people think better of others when they ask for advice primarily because people like to give others advice. The researchers found that being asked for guidance seems to give us a self-confidence boost, which in turn enhances our opinion of the individual seeking the help.
In one of the five experiments the study’s authors conducted, they asked participants to imagine that they were stuck on a problem at work and decided to seek the advice of a co-worker. Other participants were told that they didn’t ask a colleague for help. Both groups then rated how competent they thought their co-worker would view them, and those who were told they asked for guidance expected their colleague to think less of them than those who were told they worked on the problem alone.
But a separate experiment showed that those fears of looking incompetent, or hypothetically incompetent, were misguided. The researchers had participants paired with a partner (it was actually a computer simulation), who they communicated with via instant messaging. The subjects were asked to complete a brainteaser and were told that their partner would do the same task after they had finished. When the participant was done, their partner either messaged them, “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or “I hope it went well.” Participants were then asked to rate the competency of their partners, and subjects rated their (fake) buddies slightly higher when they asked for advice.
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The researchers concluded that there are three important factors in the relationship between seeking advice and perceptions of competence. Individuals perceive those who are seeking advice as more competent when the task is difficult compared to when it’s easy; when people seek advice from them personally rather than when the potential advisor sees the person asking someone else for advice; and when people ask for advice from experts instead of from non-experts (if the individual seeking advice goes to someone who isn’t an expert, then they come across as less competent than if they hadn’t asked for advice in the first place). Key takeaway: It can sometimes be beneficial to admit that you have no idea what you’re doing.