Years ago my business partner and mentor, Spencer Burke, told me that one of the most powerful things you can do to make someone think you are smart and want to help you is to ask for their advice. He told me that when you ask for advice that other person becomes invested in your success. This seemed counterintuitive so over the years I’ve paid attention to see if it was true.
Lo and behold, I have noticed that I feel more positively about co-workers when they ask for my advice. I don’t think “wow, I can’t believe they need help with that.” Instead, I find myself thinking “it’s so smart of them to spot that issue and to ask for my help” when they seek my input. I find that I feel an attachment to them after they ask for my advice.
On the flip side, after Spencer’s revelation I started asking others for their advice more frequently and with more intentionality. The experiences were universally positive and people from whom I sought advice seemed flattered and more invested in my success.
The Two Primary Benefits of Seeking Advice
It turns out there is research backing up Spencer’s insight about asking for advice. Researchers from Harvard and Wharton have found that asking for advice is beneficial. Click here for link to study. There are two primary benefits of seeking advice according to the study:
1. Seeking advice improves objective performance. Instead of figuring out things on our own, it is usually beneficial to get input from others. Asking for advice can generate new ideas and allows you to learn from the experience of others.
2. Seeking advice is a powerful impression management tool. We may not want to ask for advice because we are worried about appearing incompetent. The Harvard/Wharton research study actually found the opposite: asking for advice increases the perception of competence the advisor has of the advice seeker.
Why Seeking Advice Makes us Seem More Competent
It seems counterintuitive that someone would think we are more competent when we ask for advice. The study found that asking for advice improves others’ perceptions of us for a few reasons.
1. Seeking advice is an efficient way to gather information. Thus, advice seeking conveys wisdom to others and advisors recognize this wisdom.
2. Seeking advice conveys confidence. “Seeking advice may demonstrate vulnerability and willingness to take a risk, signaling one’s confidence about overcoming the potential interpersonal costs of seeking advice.”
3. Seeking advice strokes the advisor’s ego. People tend to hold positive views of themselves and we like flattery. An IFOD from a few years ago was about a study that found that there was no limit to the amount of flattery that is effective. You can find that IFOD here. This point is driven home by this finding in the study:
Seeking advice is a gesture that acknowledges the advisor’s expertise and can affirm the advisor’s positive self-view (e.g., “She thinks I am knowledgeable”). Individuals may believe that their own advice is particularly useful and judge the advice seeker to be especially competent when the advice seeker asks for the advisor’s advice specifically.
A Few Caveats
While there are benefits to asking for advice, there are a few important caveats.
First, the advice you seek must be in an area that the advisor has competence. If you ask a potential advisor for advice in an area that makes them admit their own lack of expertise “then seeking advice from that individual will make the advice seeker seem less competent than not seeking advice at all or seeking advice from someone else.” For example, if a pregnant female asked me for advice about giving birth I’d think she was ridiculous. Or, if I was asked about the best store to buy big and tall clothing I’d also think they were silly for asking me (I’m 5’9″).
Second, asking for advice improves your appearance of competence only when the task or situation is difficult. Asking for advice in easy situations conveys no benefit or can be detrimental.
Third, the act of seeking advice is personal meaning that it needs to be a one-on-one interaction. You don’t appear to be more competent when observed asking for advice to a third-party. For example, if you ask for advice in a group meeting, the person you are asking for advice may perceive you as more competent, but the rest of the people in the meeting may think you are less competent.
A related phenomenon is that asking for a favor also can improve others’ perception of you. This is called the Ben Franklin effect: https://www.theifod.com/the-ben-franklin-effect/
This is not the same as asking for advice, but I think it is related: I have found that asking questions of an expert in a group setting often brought me accolades from others. I was sometimes worried that the question I was asking would be viewed as a “silly” question, but it was typical for others to approach me after the meeting thanking me for asking the question.