An Unexpected Way to Look Smarter


look smarter

Do you avoid asking people for advice? Do you avoid seeking help from others even when they have the knowledge or experience to be helpful?

If so, you are typical. And, you’re doing it wrong.

There are a couple of reasons many of us don’t seek expert help. First, it makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s particularly difficult if we need help in an area where we are supposed to be competent. There’s no doubt it’s hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.

Second, we assume that in addition to displaying our ignorance, asking for advice will annoy the person we are asking. They know about the topic, they may get paid for their expertise, so we don’t want to waste their valuable time or seem like freeloaders.

This reasoning seems logical, but it’s wrong. Research shows that the opposite is true.

A study by led by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business school confirmed that people tend to believe that asking for advice would make them seem less competent.

Additional experiments, though, showed that asking for advice in the right way actually increases other people’s estimate of our competence. And, people are usually flattered rather than annoyed when they are asked for advice.

Asking for advice makes you seem more, not less, competent - if you do it right! Share on X

The Right Way to Ask for Advice

The study showed a few specific characteristics that caused the boost in perceived competence. The question had to be in the expert’s domain of knowledge. The issue had to be harder rather than easier to solve. And, a personal request was better than a general one.

Here’s a quick summary of how to look smarter by asking for advice:

1) Ask for advice from someone with expertise in or experience with the topic. Asking a CEO for business or career advice will make you look competent. Asking that same person for advice on a random topic where they have no particular expertise will backfire.

2) Don’t ask dumb questions. I periodically see executives who bemoan the fact that people often waste their time with questions they could have as easily answered using Google. When you ask an expert for advice, be sure that what you are asking exploits her unique expertise.

The researchers found that there was no competence boost for easy questions.

3) Make the request for advice personal. One of the effects of asking for advice, the study found, is to flatter the expert. Ask Expert A for advice, and that person will think better of you. But, if you ask Expert B for advice, Expert A’s opinion of you doesn’t improve, even though your actions were essentially the same.

In other words, you don’t seem smart to me because you are seeking expert counsel… you seem smart because you are seeking MY sage advice!

So, don’t start your request with something like, “I’m trying to get some good advice on this decision…” Rather, lead with an opening that acknowledges that individual’s expertise in the topic you are seeking advice with, like, “Adam, you know a lot about online marketing, and I’d really appreciate your advice…”

Need advice from an expert? Make the request personal to seem smarter yourself Share on X

Advice vs. Feedback

One interesting distinction the authors of the study make is between asking for “advice” and “feedback.” While the two terms might seem almost interchangeable, they aren’t. Advice is forward-looking and feedback is backward-looking, the paper notes. The experiments didn’t examine feedback requests. So, if you want to follow the path the researchers found to increase the perception of confidence, ask for advice.

To sum up, don’t trust your instincts when someone is in a position to offer good advice. Ask the right way, and you’ll both benefit from the transaction. And, as an additional benefit, you’ll likely strengthen your relationship with your advisor.

1 Comment
  1. Jhumur says

    Can’t agree less as I reflect on some of my personal experiences.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.