Asking for Advice Makes You Seem More Competent, Not Less

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You hear a lot about fears of heights or spiders or clowns, but down deep, most people are most afraid of this one thing: sounding dumb. New research shows that people shy away from asking for help for fear of appearing less competent, but that this is an unfounded fear: Asking for advice actually makes you seem more capable.  

Across five studies, a research team led by Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks finds that people think better of others when they ask for advice — mostly because people really love to give advice. Being asked for advice seems to give us a self-confidence boost, which in turn enhances our opinion of the advice-seeker, Brooks and colleagues write in the paper, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Management Science.

In one study, the researchers asked participants to imagine that they were stuck on a problem at work; some were told that they ultimately decided to ask a co-worker for advice, and others were told that their hypothetical selves had decided against doing so. They were then asked to rate how competent they believed their co-worker would view them, and the people who’d been told to imagine asking for help expected their co-workers to think less of them than those who’d been told to envision going it alone. We’re even reluctant to look hypothetically dumb.

But a separate study suggests that those fears are misplaced. Participants were paired with a partner with whom they communicated via IM (though it was actually a computer simulation); they were asked to complete a brain teaser and told their partner would do the task after they’d finished. When they were done, their (fake) partner either IMed them, “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or simply “I hope it went well.” Afterward, the subjects were asked to rate the competency of their partners, and people rated their IM buddies (slightly) higher when they asked for advice.

Another study replicated the IM-chat findings, but added a small twist: The participants were also asked to rate their self-confidence at the end of the task. In the advice-seeking condition, people who reported greater self-esteem also rated their partners as more highly competent. The research also showed that people who’d been asked advice were more likely to say that they’d ask their partner for advice in a future task, suggesting that advice-asking has a circular ego-boosting effect.

Sometimes, yes, overconfidence has its place. But it can also be beneficial to admit you have no idea what you’re doing.