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Reuters/Keith Bedford
It’s all in the execution.

Asking for advice at work makes you seem smart, not stupid—but only if you do it right

Akshat Rathi
By Akshat Rathi

Senior reporter

Startup culture tends to emphasize the fact that an organization’s strengths are distributed among its staff, and encourage employees to seek each other out for advice and guidance.

That changes, however, as organizations get bigger, and in many companies employees fear that asking for advice will make them look less competent—which is unfortunate, because getting the right advice can sometimes be the difference between success and failure.

Now, a new study published in the journal Management Science has found that, if done right, seeking advice can actually make you appear more competent.

In five experiments involving some 1,500 participants, Francesca Gino at the Harvard Business School and her colleagues tested interactions between advice-seekers and those who may provide the advice, then surveyed the participants on their impressions.

The reason that some resist seeking advice is because of “egocentric bias,” the researchers found. People worry that by asking others for help, they will expose their own weaknesses.

But asking for the right kind of advice from the right person can actually have the opposite effect—making you seem smart, and endearing you to your colleagues and superiors in the process—the researchers concluded.

“By asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the adviser’s ego and can gain valuable insights,” Gino told the New York Times.

It’s all in the execution. The HBS researchers suggested these three steps to help you appear smart, instead of incompetent, when seeking advice:

  1. Make sure the task is indeed difficult. If you can manage to do something with a little bit of extra effort, then seeking advice for it may not be the best idea.
  2. Make sure you seek advice from the right expert. There’s nothing worse than asking someone in human resources to help you with your IT problem.
  3. Make sure you approach the person directly. You may not know the person you are seeking advice from, but it helps to flatter them about their expertise before seeking advice.

When done right, asking advice is a win-win. One you get someone’s advice, it is your decision whether to use it or not. Still, having others’ perspective will, in most cases, leave you better equipped. (Though the researchers don’t address how to explain why you didn’t act on someone’s advice.)

There is, however, one state of mind in which seeking advice won’t help. If you’re anxious about the activity you are involved in, Gino’s past research shows, you won’t be as able to differentiate good advice from bad.