By Steve Kelman

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Don't hesitate to ask for advice!

Mentoring -- Image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

When individuals in a workplace seek advice from co-workers about a work-related challenge, the information and perspective the advice provides helps the advice-seeker to acquire new skills and to improve their job performance. Indeed, one reason to co-locate people doing similar kinds of work in the same physical workspace is that it makes advice-seeking easier: All one needs to do is mosey from one's own cubicle to a nearby desk where a potential source of advice is sitting.

However, intuition also suggests that such requests also engender costs for the advice-seeker -- the request may make the requester appear incompetent, powerless, or inferior in the eyes of those from whom advice is requested. If individuals hesitate to ask for advice out of a worry others will perceive them as less competent, they lose the ability to learn through advice -- and organizations will fail to take advantage of one of the central reasons for putting people together in a workplace. Performance will suffer as a result.

Well, there's now some good news for potential advice-seekers. Harvard Business School faculty Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino, along with Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer, have shown that asking for advice clearly -- if somewhat counterintuitively -- improves the perception the individual being asked for advice has of the advice-seeker!

In a paper entitled "Smart People Ask for (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence," appearing in the journal Management Science. (The paper was recently discussed in the New York Times, although that article's title was misleading in terms of what the paper actually said.)

The authors gathered a variety of data for their study. To establish a baseline of the conventional wisdom, they asked a group of respondents questions about what an advice-seeker was like. Consistent with the common view, they found that individuals believed a coworker would view them as less competent when they asked for advice.

Then the researchers asked experimental subjects to spend some time solving a brain teaser. They were assigned a "partner" on their computer screen (actually it was just a computer that generated messages) who, the subjects were told, would work on the same problem after the subject finished. When the subjects began working on the brain teaser, all received a message from their partner saying "Hey, good luck." After the subjects worked on the brain teaser, subjects received a second message from the partner. For half of them the message read, "I hope it went well." For the other half, it was, "I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?"

The experimenters then asked the subjects three questions examining how much confidence the subject had in their partner, such as, "I feel very confident about my partner's skills." The headline finding was that the subjects who received a message asking for advice had a higher perception of their partner than those who did not receive that message. And the effects of an advice-seeking message were limited to its impact on the subject's perception of the advice-seeker's competence: Subjects who received the "Do you have any advice?" message were no more likely to rate the partner high on warmth or likeability than those who hadn't.

To see whether alternative messages might also prompt a subject to think more highly of partner competence, the researchers also tested whether the perception of confidence was increased by a solicitous message ("Hey there. How many classes are you taking this semester?") or one highlighting what the subject and the partner had in common ("Hey there. We're in this together."). Neither alternative message had any effect on the subjects' judgments of partner competence. Only partner advice-seeking did.

Why do we see these results? Put simply, they reflect the impact of a request for advice on the person receiving the request. The act of seeking advice acknowledges the advisor's expertise. Importantly, in one of the studies in the paper, subjects receiving a request for advice displayed higher confidence in their own competence than those who didn't receive that message. But, crucially for the advice-seeker, the advice-seeker's flattery works for them as well. The inquiry tends to make the person being flattered think more highly of the source of the message, because the self-esteem of the person receiving an advice request is enhanced if they believe the request is coming from somebody who him or herself Is competent.

That's what seems to be happening here -- requests for advice cause recipients not only to think more highly of themselves, but also of the advice-seekers. (Indeed, the researchers found that subjects' increased perception of the competence of an advice-seeker was almost fully explained by the subjects' increased confidence in themselves.)

The bottom line to those considering asking for advice in the workplace from co-workers: Don't worry about looking less than competent. Asking for advice is not only good for your organization -- it makes the advice-givers feel better about themselves, and better about you.

That's good news for promoting a behavior that helps both the advice-seeker personally and the performance of the advice-seeker's organization.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:03 AM


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