The Simple Trick To Seeming More Competent

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We've all felt it: Whether we're starting a job, taking on a new project, or simply performing a task with which we're not familiar, asking for help can be scary. Our fear of looking dumb can hold us back from seeking advice, even when we desperately need it. Doing some covert Googling is a better strategy than actually admitting incompetence, right?

If you subscribe to this assumption, new research out of Harvard Business School — soon to be published in the journal Management Science — may change your mind. Assistant Professor of Business Administration Alison Wood Brooks led a research team in exploring the interpersonal dynamics of advice-seeking. The team's findings indicate that when we're asked for advice, we receive an ego boost that leads us to perceive the advice-seeker as more competent than we did before — and to want to work with him or her again.

In one study, some participants were told to picture a professional scenario in which they asked a colleague for input while struggling with a task; other participants were told to imagine that they handled the task on their own. Researchers then followed up with participants to determine how competent they believed their colleagues would find them in either scenario. The participants who had imagined themselves asking for advice believed that their coworkers would see them as less capable than those participants who had pictured themselves as lone rangers — the advice-seeking fear factor in action.

Further research, however, shows this fear may be unwarranted: This time, participants were asked to complete a puzzle and then hand it off to a virtual partner to complete again. When the participants finished their own puzzle, they received a message from their partner, either saying "I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?" or just "I hope it went well." Participants who received the message soliciting advice rated their partners as more competent than those who had simply wished them well. And, participants were more likely to ask advice-seeking partners than non-advice-seeking partners for help in the future — a phenomenon the HBS research team believes is linked to the heightened self-confidence participants felt when they were asked questions.

Being asked for advice is flattering, and that positive emotion makes us more likely to want to team up with advice-seekers in the future. We may also see those who seek help as more eager to learn and collaborate — and therefore as more capable than people who keep their heads down and mouths shut. So, if you've been holding back from asking for information — in the workplace or elsewhere — consider this your license to speak up. While asking questions you could easily answer yourself (via Google, for example) won't win you respect points, seeking advice where you really need it can build valuable relationships.