ask for advice
Photo: Andrew Beeston via Flickr

Picture this: You’re new on the job. Everyone else seems to already know what they’re doing, but you — you aren’t sure where anything is. You don’t seem to have access to the files you need. Your company address book doesn’t seem to be working, and even if it did, you wouldn’t know who to ask because you haven’t learned anyone’s name. So, you keep your head down and muddle through, feeling like an abject failure.

Or, you could turn to the person next to you and ask for help, and, because you’re new, they’ll totally understand your confusion and tell you what you need to know.

Everyone — especially creative professionals — is afraid of looking dumb. And often, that keeps us from asking for the help we need. But research from Harvard Business School shows that asking for advice actually makes you seem more competent and confident.

In a paper authored by Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino, both of Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer, of the Wharton School, the researchers conclude that the fear of looking incompetent as a result of asking for help is “misplaced.”

“Individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent than those who do not seek advice,” write the authors, adding that “many  individuals exaggerate the harmful consequences of seeking advice and undervalue its benefits.”

Not only does asking for advice make you look good, it also makes you actually a better worker, according to the researchers.

“Across many domains, seeking help improves learning, creativity, and performance…In organizations, seeking help enables individuals to acquire new skills, achieve better outcomes, and attain higher levels of satisfaction,” write the authors.

Also, it deserves to be noted that help- or advice-seeking is not the same as feedback-seeking. The authors are quick to point out the difference; asking your boss about how you did on a specific task is not the same as asking her how she would complete a complex task you’ve been assigned.

CreativeLive instructor Kari Chapin noted the importance of asking for help as a small business owner in her class, Start a Handmade Business.

“Just because you own a business, doesn’t mean you have to know every single thing about how to run that business.” Whether it’s bookkeeping, marketing, or some other aspect that isn’t exactly your strongest skill, asking for help from those around you will not only make you look like a more competent business owner, it’ll also actually make you one by ensuring that things are getting done right.

There is one caveat, though: You need to ask the right person on the right subject.

“Individuals perceive those who seek advice as more competent when the task is difficult than when it is easy, when people seek advice from them personally than when they seek advice from others, and when people seek advice from experts than from non-experts or not at all,” write the study’s authors.

Asking for advice can also be negatively viewed if you’re asking the wrong question — there’s a wide gap between “what do you think of this?” and “can you lend me your expertise that you usually charge money for but I have no intentions of paying you?” Before you ask for advice from your supervisor, colleague, or another person you respect, consider what it is that you’re actually asking. Are you trying to navigate a complex problem, or are you trying to get insider secrets that they may not be willing to cough up?

Once you’ve figured out what kind of help you need — and who to get it from — ask away. It’s good for appearances, and actually just a smart move.