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How Leaders Can Ask For Help And Keep Their Team’s Confidence

A new study reveals that when male leaders ask for help, they are perceived as less competent, but the same bias doesn’t apply to women.

How Leaders Can Ask For Help And Keep Their Team’s Confidence
[Photo: Flickr user Kate Ter Haar]

It’s a stereotype that men would rather be lost than stop and get directions, but it turns out asking for help carries a psychological penalty for guys. A study from researchers at Duke University, the University of San Diego, and the University of Pittsburgh found that male leaders who ask for help are perceived as being less competent. When female leaders solicit help, however, the negative image didn’t apply.

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“What drives this perception is that help-seeking is atypical for men but not for women,” says Dave Lebel, assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, and coauthor of the study. “Asking for help isn’t behavior fitting a leadership role, and it isn’t behavior fitting a male gender role. In this case, women win; it’s okay for them to ask for help, because even though it’s not fitting a leadership role, it’s congruent with their gender role and deemed acceptable.”

Yet in today’s rapidly changing workplace, leaders need to seek help from subordinates to enact change, says Lebel. “The business world is moving too quickly, and it’s impossible for anybody to know everything,” he says.

Asking for help builds a healthy business, says Ruth Smyth, head of human resources for Alexander Mann Solutions, a recruiting and management firm. “There’s a huge amount of evidence that suggests that a collaborative culture leads to innovative and better productivity, because people are focused on common goals,” she says.

Whether you’re male or female, the question shouldn’t be if you should ask for help. It should be, how do you ask for help?

Ask for Advice Instead

Lebel says research has found that it can be easier to ask for help when you turn it into advice seeking. In a study published in the June 2015 issue of Management Science, researchers from Harvard Business School and Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found that advice-seeking differs from other help-seeking behaviors because you’re eliciting information for a course of action, retaining the decision-making process, and implying that the values of the advice seeker is similar to the adviser.

“Asking for a recommendation can feel flattering to the other person,” says Lebel.

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Convey the Reason You Need Help

Another way to seem less vulnerable is to provide a reason why you need help, says Lebel.

“Observers may view help-seekers as dependent upon those whom they ask for help, and therefore lacking the competence to complete tasks on their own,” he says. “But when tasks are difficult, simply saying, ‘This is harder than I thought,’ can be helpful.”

You can also provide an external reason why you need help, such as a project deadline was moved up.

Provide a Win/Win

In organizations where competitiveness causes people to be more concerned with their personal success than the organizations, asking for help can be tricky, says Lawrence Polsky, managing partner of the leadership-consulting firm Teams of Distinction and coauthor of Perfect Phrases For Communicating Change.

“In this situation, asking for help will only work if you can offer something in return,” he says. “It is more of a negotiation. You need to find common interests and exchange something to get help with something else.“

Watch Your Phrasing

When you ask for help, be careful how you frame a question, and stay away from words that make you look weak, suggests Polsky.

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Instead of saying, “Hope you don’t mind if I ask but . . . ” approach the subject by saying, “I think we have two strong ways to address the initiative we discussed–and both are equally promising to me–but I’d love your take on . . . ”

“The big takeaway is that you only look weak when you sound as though you are drowning in confusion or fear, and you always look strong if you’re positing an idea,” Polsky says.

Do Your Homework

Finally, make sure you have exhausted all options, avenues, and resources available to you before you solicit help, says Craig Downing, head of the Department of Engineering Management at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

“You must perform your due diligence,” he says. “While most of your colleagues and supervisors don’t mind providing you with help, their time is important and the onus is on you to prepare. Doing the prework allows you to tailor the conversation to capitalize on the strengths of the person providing you with assistance.”

Downing suggests avoiding vague statements like, “I am not sure what to do on this project,” or “I need help with this new client.”

“Instead, try to craft questions and insights that focus on the most important aspects of your dilemma,” he says. For example, “What past practices has the division used to increase customer satisfaction in the Midwest?”

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