How to solicit advice (and still seem competent)

We’ve long been obsessed with the idea of offering “feedback” in the workplace. A quick Google search results in dozens of well-meaning articles offering tips for both giving and soliciting employee feedback.

But, as it turns out, that’s not always the most effective way to get the information you need to improve.

So, you might wonder, what should you try instead? Next time you need some help, don’t ask for feedback: ask for advice.

The pitfalls of feedback

Though feedback is common practice in most workplaces, studies have shown that it’s less helpful than we think. Researchers at the University of London found that when people received feedback about their performance on complex tasks — positive or negative — it actually made their decision making worse.

There are various potential issues with feedback. For starters, it can be too vague. It also assumes your present performance as a baseline and focuses on what you can do to improve. If there was nothing explicitly wrong with that performance, then feedback tends to be positive — even if a general pat on the back isn’t particularly constructive.

But as CEO of Jotform, a business with over 140 employees and five million users, I know that our time and efforts are too precious for sharing feedback that isn’t helpful.

That’s why instead, I’ve found that asking for advice is a better way to solicit information that will help you to improve.

Why advice is more helpful

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People who ask for advice tend to receive more instructive answers. In one study from Harvard Business School, 200 people were asked to offer input on a job application letter written by a colleague. They were divided into two groups: The first asked to offer “feedback,” and the second asked to offer “advice.”

The results showed that those who were asked for feedback tended to offer vague and generally positive comments. And those who were asked for advice were more likely to offer both more critical and more actionable assessments — the kind of response that can actually yield clear directives for improvement.

According to the study authors, those asked to provide advice suggested 56 percent more ways to improve than those asked to provide feedback.

Why does this happen? 

Researchers point out that feedback is closely associated with evaluation — in order words, what you did do and not what you could do.

Of course, there are more helpful ways to offer feedback. But in general, when people are asked for “feedback,” they tend to want to put a positive spin on things, to offer praise and focus on the things they like. With advice, there’s less of an impetus to sugarcoat things or to even zero in on particular aspects of performance.

Instead of assessing on the nuts and bolts of what you have thought of, asking for advice invites the possibility of what you haven’t thought of — so instead of focusing solely on your work product and the limits of your perspective, you bring others into the fold so you can benefit from their insight.

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Feedback is also reminiscent of formal reviews — those nerve-wracking semi-regular evaluations where your work is dissected and divided into “good” and “bad” columns, even if that doesn’t tell a particularly good or reliable story about performance.

But advice has a different connotation: We tend to ask those we trust and admire for advice — the people who we recognize as having a certain amount of wisdom they can pass along. In fact, the very act of asking someone for advice elevates them to a status of expert — and people tend to both perform up to expectations and view you more favorably if you’ve found an indirect way to flatter them.

Some people might worry that asking for advice will make them look less capable, but research has shown the opposite. When done right, asking for advice can make you look more competent, not less.

In a study published in Management Science, researchers found three important characteristics: task difficulty, whether the advisor believed they were the only person consulted and whether the advisor knew the subject well her or himself. The researchers concluded:

“When the task is difficult, asking for advice causes advice seekers to appear more competent than they do when the task is not difficult… Advisors perceive advice-seekers as more competent when they are asked for their advice personally, but not when they observe an advice seeker consulting another person,” and finally, “If the advice seeker asks for guidance in an area that the advisor knows well, then the advice seeker appears competent.”

Of course, as with all things, context matters when it comes to advice. It’s no secret that “unsolicited advice” is a near-universal annoyance, so it’s probably not the best idea to sidle up to a colleague and offer input about what he or she should do in the future.

Tips for becoming a better advice seeker

Harvard Business School researchers aren’t suggesting some sort of carte blanche, where you ask advice from anyone and everyone you come into contact with. Instead, they came up with three guidelines for soliciting advice:

  1. Make sure the task or project or problem is sufficiently difficult to merit advice; don’t waste other people’s time with something that can easily be resolved.
  2. Ask the right person — i.e., if you need advice involving public speaking, ask someone with expertise in that area.
  3. Take a direct approach, ideally flattering someone a little (indicating that you’re coming to them because they are an expert) before seeking advice.

So, assuming I’ve convinced you to ask for advice instead of feedback, here’s another thing to keep in mind: You don’t always have to take it. But exposing yourself to a spectrum of perspectives, or asking for guidance from one trusted figure, certainly can’t hurt.

After all, you also shouldn’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help in how to move forward instead of just fumbling through — especially since, in the asking, you appear more competent and endear yourself even further to those around you.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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