mentorConventional wisdom holds that asking for help or advice makes people seem dumb, weak, incompetent, and ineffective leaders. This feeling often inhibits asking for assistance in situations when we really need it. (Yes guys, if you are hopelessly lost you really do need to ask for directions—GPS notwithstanding!) However, recent studies have shown just the opposite: Asking for advice actually makes people look smarter and more competent rather than less—both in the eyes of the people they ask, and in the eyes of others around them.


Don’t be Hesitant to Ask for Advice

A recent Harvard Business School Study, “Smart People Ask For (My) Advice: Seeking Advice Boosts Perceptions of Competence” performed several experiments aimed at gauging perception of people based on when and how they asked for advice. Those asking for advice on matters perceived to be complex were viewed more positively than those asking for help with simple matters. Additionally, those asking experts for advice on their subject of expertise were perceived more positively than those asking non-experts or no one at all.

The study also found that we view people who ask us for advice more positively than those who ask others for advice—though this can be dependent on our expertise in the subject area. (For example, if John understands that he knows nothing about taxes, and Sally is an IRS agent, he would not view positively Bob’s asking him a tax question instead of Sally.) At the heart of this finding is that people love to give advice, and being asked for it provides an ego boost that makes them feel better about both themselves and the person asking. Interestingly, those asked for advice by a partner were also more likely to ask for advice from that partner, which helps to perpetuate the advice-cycle. (If you don’t want to wade through the complex research paper, here is a good summary, and here is an interview with the lead researcher.)

If Rebuffed, Try Again

Asking for advice—whether from a friend, a colleague, an expert, a mentor, or even a competitor—can be difficult, not only because we don’t want to look foolish or incompetent but also because we assume that people view our request as onerous or really don’t want to help. A recent Stanford study found that this belief is not only self-defeating, but actually misplaced. Their experiment found that subjects expected that in order to get 3 strangers to agree to lend a cellphone they would have to ask 10, when in fact they needed to ask only 6. Further, they found that if an initial request for assistance was denied a second request was more likely to be granted. They posited that this was because people felt guilty for denying the first request, and thus denying the second request made them even more uncomfortable—something for which the askers didn’t anticipate or account.

The takeaway is not to get discouraged if an initial request for advice or assistance is rejected, if it is there is a reasonable likelihood that a second ask will be successful. However, knowing how to ask—especially if you’re seeking advice from a stranger or a distant acquaintance—is also key to both getting someone to help you and to getting useful advice.

The Art of Asking

There are many reasons to ask for advice at all stages of running your small business, each with its own advantages. Read Richard Branson on The Art of Asking For Advice for some suggestions on how to proceed. He notes that those just starting out will likely need an introduction into the networks of service providers, suppliers, and retail outlets for their products that may seem impenetrable to the newcomer, but can be opened with the intervention of an industry veteran.

Also, check out How To Ask For Advice – 5 Things You Might Be Doing Wrong, for some strategic advice on how to decide who to ask, as well as how to introduce and present your question. For example, it notes that you shouldn’t ask for advice if you don’t really want it, but are simply using the advice gathering process to delay the implementation of a decision you have already made.

Finding and Keeping a Mentor

When your business is first starting out, it is important to learn from those who have already faced the challenges you’re currently experiencing. Finding a mentor or mentors is an indispensable first step. The How to Find a Mentor resource page on the Young Entrepreneur Council Startup Collective site is a great place to start. It contains links to a number of posts that help you identify mentors, approach them, and make the relationship work. For example, the How to Find and Keep Your Ideal Mentor post suggests that before asking for help from someone, you first make yourself useful to that person by identifying their important needs and doing something to satisfy them. This harks back to the Harvard study finding that advice works best in reciprocal relationships.

Once you’ve established the relationship, it is important to nurture it correctly. Of course you should show your appreciation for the mentor’s time and advice by giving it careful consideration (The only thing worse than not asking for advice is asking for it and discarding it out of hand—that wastes everyone’s time.), by keeping the mentor apprised of your successes (and failures too), and letting your mentor know in concrete terms how they are helping you to succeed. A recent post, 12 Questions You Should Ask Your Mentor ASAP, suggests questions that help get to the heart of the issues new small business owners face. For example, it suggests asking “Am I being Crazy?” to determine whether “you are in fact being crazy or irrational. Whether it is a situation or an idea, a fresh pair of eyes that are not connected to the situation directly will tell you whether you on the right path or if you are headed off course.”

Other Uses for “The Ask”

Asking for advice on how to run your small business is only one way you can use “the ask” to your advantage. Remember, asking someone for advice is a way to flatter them and to make them think better of you for having the “good sense” to ask them for help—and successfully using that advice can make you look like a super-star in the advisor’s eyes.

A recent Harvard Business Review article, Win Over an Opponent by Asking for Advice, covers research that shows how asking for advice can be useful tool in getting adversaries ,or even sales prospects, to like you better, to get them to see things from your perspective, and to turn them into champions for your cause. For example, they cite one study that found people who asked for advice were perceived as more “warm, humble, and cooperative.” Another study found that asking someone for advice invests them in your cause, and thus provides motivation for them to help you succeed. This can be applied to many business contexts from getting a purchasing agent to champion your product among decision makers, to getting a service provider to work with you on favorable financing terms.

The Forbes post, Create Investor Demand By Asking For Advice, highlights another non-traditional way you can use asking for advice to advance your small business goals. The post provides a cases study of how one entrepreneur engaged a potential VC investor by asking for advice on his business metrics. The VC was so impressed by the data he saw, he became interested in investing with the company and promoting it among other potential investors.

Free Small Business Advice

Whatever your motivations for seeking advice on how to help your small business succeed, suppress the hesitancy to ask, and remember that people really do want to help you. A great place for small business owners to find those people is SCORE. The SCORE network of mentors is dedicated to helping small business owners. You can set up free in-person meetings with local mentors, or you can ask a question online and get an expert answer. It couldn’t be any easier than that!

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Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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