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Want to Seem Smart? Ask for Advice

A new study shows asking for help actually makes you look more competent, not less.
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Need a content-marketing success story? Expert after expert has trotted out the blog of social media scheduling company Buffer as a golden example. It's not hard to see why--the blog has racked up some impressive statistics for a small startup. What's Buffer's secret? There's no one magic ingredient, but among other best practices, the Buffer team are firm believers in admitting, "I don't know."

The writers pursue a strategy of identifying gaps in their knowledge, owning up to them, and then pursuing answers through in-depth research, Kevan Lee recently explained. "If we can earn a reputation as a go-to source for social media content by embracing what we don't know, then the opportunity's there for you to do the same," he wrote.

Confessing ignorance and searching for answers, in other words, is a great way to build authority online. Turns out it's not a bad strategy offline either.

Appear more competent by admitting your ignorance.

That's the takeaway from a new series of studies led by Harvard Business School's Alison Wood. The studies delve into how asking for advice affects perceptions of competence. You'd think that readily admitting your ignorance wouldn't do wonders for others' estimation of your abilities, but much like Buffer discovered online, asking for help can actually make you seem smarter.

In one study for instance, participants were told they would complete a brain teaser and then a fellow participant would complete it afterward. These first participants were sent a text message from the second participant (actually a computer simulation) that either expressed a polite wish that the puzzle went well or asked for advice on completing it. How did the request for assistance affect the participants' perceptions of their partners' intelligence? It actually increased their estimation of their competence.

Why does asking for assistance have a positive effect on your reputation? The authors suggest three reasons:

  • "First, the act of seeking advice may convey wisdom. Seeking advice is an efficient way to gather information, and advisers may recognize this."
  • "Second, seeking advice can convey confidence. Though feeling confident decreases advice taking, seeking advice may demonstrate vulnerability and willingness to take a risk, signaling one's confidence to overcome the potential interpersonal costs of seeking advice."
  • "Third, like praise or a sincere compliment, seeking advice can stroke an adviser's ego."

Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question.

Of course, not every request for advice makes you seem clever. According to the researchers, there really are such things as stupid questions. If the person you ask thinks the task you need help with is ridiculously easy, for instance, his or her opinion of you won't increase. Or as the authors dryly put it, "we suspect that there are questions so inane that advisers would view advice-seekers as less competent."

It's also a bad idea to ask advice from someone who is obviously unqualified to give it--he or she will just think (probably accurately) that you're foolish for asking.

Also, because part of the effect is the flattery factor of being consulted, requesting help from one person will not necessarily impress a random onlooker. "Our findings suggest that the benefits of advice seeking are contingent on direct flattery; being asked for advice caused advisers to feel more self-confident and, in turn, to view the advice seeker more positively," conclude the researchers.

Still, with all these caveats, the underlying message remains clear. When the situation merits it and the person you speak to is qualified to help, asking for advice is not only unlikely to dent your professional reputation but also will actually probably boost it. So stop being so shy about asking for assistance.

Last updated: Aug 29, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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