Look, nobody wants to look like a dingus. There’s just something about our egos that implores us: Whatever I do, I mustn’t pester one of my colleagues and ask for help with this. I’ve got this! If worse comes to worst, Google will come to the rescue and nobody will ever realize that I’m not the all-knowing repository of insights that they surely believe me to be as I strut around the office.
Well, you’ve got it all wrong, dingus. You know the old grade school cliche, “There’s no such thing as a dumb question?” There’s actually quite a bit of truth to that. And now there’s science to back it up.
As it turns out, asking others for advice is extraordinarily beneficial. Not only does it yield new insights, but it actually makes you look good. It might seem counterintuitive, but recent studies have shown that people who ask others for help are seen as smarter and more competent by those receiving the requests.
Through a pair of studies conducted at the Wharton School of Business, behavioral scientists were able to confirm something you probably could have guessed: People are not naturally inclined to ask others for advice because they fear it makes them look stupid. In fact, participants were only half as likely to seek advice when they believed their reputations were at stake, as opposed to those who were only concerned with the accuracy of the information in question.
The researchers, writing in Scientific American, explain:
In one of these studies, which were published earlier this year, we asked 199 students to complete a “challenging brainteaser” that consisted of seven IQ test questions. We told half of the subjects that they would be paid $1 for each correct answer. We told the other half that they would be paid based on a partner’s rating of their competence on a scale from 1 to 7 and would earn $1 for each point on the rating scale. Before answering the questions, participants could send a message to their partner, who had purportedly completed the brainteaser earlier. They could ask their partner for advice (“Hey, can you give me any advice?”), send no message or send a neutral greeting (“Hey, I hope you did well”).
People being paid for accuracy had no problem asking for help: 73.5% of them inquired without hesitation. By contrast, the folks who thought they were being judged on their competence were much shyer. Only 32.7% of them bothered to ask for advice.
In another study, the researchers looked at the other side of the equation: the perception of the person being asked for advice. Of the 170 students taking a questionnaire, half of them received a neutral, good luck message from an anonymous partner (actually a computer), while the other half were asked by their imaginary partners for advice. According to the researchers, “participants who were asked for advice both rated their partner as more competent and reported that they would be more likely to ask their partner for advice on a similar task in the future.”
Another study at Northwestern University in 2010 found similar results: After a (simulated) negative performance review, employees who asked questions about how they could improve things were viewed as “more likable and competent” than those who sat in shameful silence.
Apparently, those of us who seek out information from others when we need to are perceived as smarter than those who don’t. As an added bonus, going to others for advice has a way of stroking their ego and making them feel more important. Everybody wins.
As impeccably smart as we’d all like to believe we are, there’s reason we work with other people: An entire office of heads is way better than one.