Does Deciding to Seek Advice Signal Weakness?

It turns out that a willingness to ask for advice on difficult problems can increase your perceived competence.

If you face a tough problem and are concerned about how others view you, do you ask for advice, or do you try to find an answer on your own?

Many people are hesitant to seek advice, however useful it might be, for fear that others will think less of them.

But according to authors Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, “concerns about appearing incompetent may be misplaced.”

Asking for advice can actually elevate how others see you, they found, especially when the problem is a difficult one.

In “Smart People Ask for (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence,” published online in February 2015 by the journal Management Science, the authors found that it was common for individuals to worry that reaching out for advice would make them appear less competent.

Task difficulty influenced the effect asking for help had on perceptions of competence. When tasks were seen as difficult, the individual seeking advice was actually viewed more competently — presumably as someone who recognized his or her limitations and wanted to do well. However, when the tasks were seen as relatively easy, seeking advice did not negatively affect perceptions about competence (nor, the researchers noted, did it have a positive effect).

In addition to establishing a connection between people’s willingness to ask for advice and others’ perceptions of their competence, the authors found that whom people ask for advice makes a difference in how they are viewed.

In one study, participants saw people who asked them personally for advice as generally more competent — but that didn’t extend to people who asked some other person for advice. Advisers who consider themselves knowledgeable in an area are flattered to be asked about it and view the advice seeker more positively for asking. But the authors’ research also indicated that, if advice seekers solicit input in areas where the adviser clearly lacks expertise, this can undermine perceptions of competence.


This research is one of six scholarly articles into decision making highlighted in the Winter 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. Read more in “Why You Decide the Way You Do,” by Bruce Posner.