Asking for advice at work is an essential way to learn, to course correct, and to improve.
Colleagues with different expertise across your company can provide insight into their career paths if you’re considering a move, thoughts on workplace best practices if you’re new to a position, or advice on how to handle specific, often stressful, situations. People often think that asking several people for advice leads to the best results — after all, the more diversity in perspective, the more information we can consider. However, new research suggests that we should think twice before asking for input from a very wide range of people.
New research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes explains that asking many people for advice can actually trigger negative reactions. “Given how commonly most of us are told to seek second and third opinions, we expected advisors to rate those pursuing this strategy as more competent. But we found the opposite. People who were in a group of several advisors not only rated the advice-seeker as less competent, but also indicated that they felt more socially distant to them later and were less interested in advising them in the future,” Hayley Blunden, a Ph.D student at Harvard Business School and a co-author of the study, and her colleagues wrote for Harvard Business Review.
The researchers hypothesized that these reactions stemmed from the advisers’ realization that their advice might not be followed; the larger number of people who were consulted for advice, the lower probability that an adviser’s advice would be followed, resulting in a sense of rejection because individuals “tend to think highly of themselves and their opinions and gain status when their advice is taken,” the researchers explained. In a subsequent study, the researchers confirmed their hypothesis — advisers whose suggestions were ignored became more offended and “were likely to denigrate and sever their relationship with the seekers,” the researchers wrote.
Such findings might confuse those of us in need of advice. Should we only consult one person when we need guidance? What if that person’s advice doesn’t line up with goals or values? While seeking the “wisdom of crowds” — as the researchers put it — could come with some negative side effects, it can also be done in a way that promotes an environment of candor, understanding, and growth. After all, soliciting multiple opinions is still valuable.
Be direct and transparent about your goals
First, the study suggests that advice seekers should be more transparent about their intentions when asking a group of people for ideas and suggestions. So whether you are looking for general information about next steps in your career or are curious about a specific concept you’re not familiar with, let people know what kind of information you are after and why you are asking in the first place.
Express gratitude before and after seeking advice
Gratitude has been shown to promote honesty, productivity, and overall well-being in the workplace, and can be used as a tool to ease any interaction, including asking for advice. If a co-worker agrees to meet for coffee and share a lot of advice with you, emphasize how much you appreciate their time. After your conversation, send a follow-up email, deliver a handwritten thank you note, or drop by their desk to reaffirm your gratitude.
Ask the right kinds of questions
To reap the most reward from any advice that a co-worker gives you, be sure to ask questions that show your interest and keep the conversation flowing. Follow-up questions can make conversations less superficial, and research shows that people are more willing to reveal sensitive or personal information when the toughest questions are asked at the beginning of the conversation. Active listening should also be a key component of your conversation, as it will show your advice-giver that you are engaged and care about what is being discussed.
Use compassionate directness in your approach
If you decide not to follow someone’s advice, there is no better way to inform them than with compassionate directness. As Thrive founder and CEO Arianna Huffington puts it, compassionate directness means “empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree, and surface problems, pain points and constructive criticism… immediately, continuously, and with clarity” in a way that is empathetic and understanding. Take a moment to talk with your colleague about why you decided to pursue another path, or rely on other information. Be straightforward in your conversation, but be sure to express the ways in which their advice was helpful.
Asking for advice — especially from a large group of people with conflicting opinions — can feel like you’re treading water. The good news, though, is that you can navigate these situations with transparency, gratitude, and compassionate directness. This way, you can garner the information you need, while maintaining good relationships in the workplace and ensuring everyone feels valued.