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“Smart people ask for (my) advice!”

Monday, September 15, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

smart people ask for adviceWe are often wary of asking for advice for fear of looking dumb or appearing incompetent. Oddly enough, our fears may be unfounded based on some new research out of Harvard Business School. According to the researchers, asking for advice does not make you appear either dumb or incompetent. Instead, asking for advice makes you seem more capable.

While initially this may seem unlikely, think about how much people love to give advice. When someone is asked for advice, they experience a boost in self-confidence, which, say the researchers, in turn enhances their opinion of the person seeking advice. It is, in truth, a win-win situation. The person asking for advice gets some feedback and they are seen as more competent while the person being asked for advice feels better about themselves (and about the person asking for advice).

The researchers (we’ve covered some of their earlier work here) conducted 5 separate experiments and here is what they found:

Asking for advice actually increases other’s perceptions of your competence.

When the task is difficult, asking for advice causes the person seeking advice to appear more competent than when the task is not difficult. However, even when the task is easy, seeking advice did not lower perceptions of the person’s competence!

When someone is asked for their specific advice, they see the asker as more competent. However, if they see the person asking someone else for advice, they do not see the advice seeker as more competent. The researchers believe there is a “direct flattery” component involved here since “being asked for advice caused advisors to feel more self-confident, and, in turn, to view the advice seeker more positively”.

Finally, the advice-giver needs to believe themselves competent and experienced in the area in which they are asked for advice. [Of course, a lot of people have an inflated sense of the scope of their qualifications…] If the advice seeker asks for guidance in an area of the advisor’s expertise, the advisor sees the seeker as more competent. However, if the advisor is obviously not experienced in the area, “then the advice seeker seems less competent than if s/he had not asked for advice” at all.

The researchers say our fears about appearing incompetent by asking for advice are unfounded and that, in truth, there are benefits to both being the advice-seeker and being the advisor. They believe that organizations benefit from encouraging advice-seeking as it will help spread useful information and improve relationships between colleagues and co-workers. The dilemma is that if you educate your employees on the advantages of advice-seeking to both the advice-seeker and the advice-giver–you run the risk of the advice-giver feeling manipulated and the advice-seeker wanting to “not be that guy/gal”. The authors do not offer advice to the manager looking for ways to build this dynamic into their office culture–they simply say it would be a positive and productive thing. (See the full text of the paper here.)

This explains why one of our favorite strategies for both debriefing mock jurors and conducting voir dire are so productive. At mock trials and focus groups, I introduce the process by sharing with the mock jurors my hope that through their collective wisdom we can tell the disputing parties and their lawyers what ‘real people’ think about the issues, and guide a resolution that doesn’t require a trial. It elevates them from being there for a couple hundred dollars to being there to solve a problem. They really like it. At trial, asking the venire questions framed in terms of “help me understand” and “Is that important to you?” makes them feel that you are seeking their perspective, not quizzing them or boxing them in. It credits them with having a contribution to make, that they are smart enough to have a valid opinion, and that you recognize the validity of their point of view. It’s not about you or your client at that point, it’s about the jurors. And that can’t hurt.

Brooks, AW, Gino, F, & Schweitzer, ME (2014). Smart people ask for (my) advice: Seeking advice boosts perceptions of competence. Harvard Business School Working Papers

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