Do you ask for advice?

Asking more experienced colleagues for advice at work can help you avoid major screwups. But most of us have many experienced colleagues — so should we ask a couple of them for advice about each thing, the same way you’d look at a couple of reviews before you buy a mattress? The short answer, according to new research, is no.

Here’s one thing advice fundamentally isn’t: a mattress review. Whereas reviews are online for anyone to find, advice has to be personally solicited.

When you ask someone for advice, in other words, you’re creating a vulnerable interpersonal interaction. Your colleague knows you’re asking for guidance — unlike reviewers, who never know who reads their reviews — and that person spends time offering their thoughts.

This makes advice distinct not just from reviews, but also from help and feedback, this study’s authors note. Asking for help and feedback involves vulnerability, too, but when you ask for help, you’re not only giving the other person some control over the outcome of your task — you’re asking them to literally do part of it — but you also tend to ask for help when you already know what needs to be done, so there’s little input on the part of the helper. When you ask for feedback, meanwhile, you offer the other person no control and total certainty. Your task is complete, and you simply ask them how well you completed it.

Advice lies somewhere in the murky middle. Advisors often want the level of control helpers get but without all the work — in other words, they want to tell advice seekers what to do. Advice seekers, meanwhile, often think they’re asking advisors for background information or context. In other words, they hope to tap into the wisdom of crowds by talking to a lot of people without ceding control to anyone.

When the advice giver and receiver have mismatched expectations like this, relationships can sour. Asking for advice, in other words, is a risky endeavor.

Initially, the study’s authors expected that asking for advice would endear people to their advisors. There’s wisdom in crowds, after all; in some cases, a group is smarter than the smartest person in it! Getting multiple perspectives on a tricky topic is just good sense.

And it’s true that asking for advice can be a great move: Advisors mostly felt flattered when they were asked for advice. But when subordinates didn’t take their advice or asked a bunch of other people for advice too, that flattery factor dropped, and the relationship sometimes soured.

The researchers found, for instance, that in a survey of 100 financial advisors, more than half (52 percent) had ended a client relationship after the client refused to take their advice. In another experiment where they asked 200 people to recall a time when they gave advice, they found that the advisors felt less close to the advice recipient afterward if the recipient ignored the advice.

Something similar happened when people recalled someone asking them — and multiple other people — for advice. Compared to people who were asked exclusively, people who were just one of many asked for advice were more likely to feel offended and less likely to continue their professional relationship with the advice seeker.

To the researchers, these two problems — people being offended when their advice wasn’t taken and when others were also asked for advice — seemed related. Asking multiple people for advice makes you less likely to take any one person’s advice, which means your adviser has less control and a higher chance of being ignored.

So yes, crowds can be wise, but crowds can also be controlling, even downright domineering. (See: stampedes.) If you value your relationship with your advisors, only ask for their advice when you really think you might take it. Try it out.

Check out my related post: How to deal with difficult bosses?

Interesting reads:

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