Asking for help makes you look good -- unless you're a man in charge

Boss, meeting, successUniversity of Exeter/flickrMale bosses who ask for help are perceived as atypical leaders.

A few years ago, researchers at the Harvard Business School and the Wharton School published some attention-getting findings about the surprising benefits of asking for help.

Apparently, soliciting advice from someone more experienced than you doesn’t make you look stupid — instead, it helps you look more competent. By plumping up the experienced person’s ego, you engender positive feelings toward you.

But a 2015 study suggests that there’s one glaring exception to that phenomenon. According to the findings, men in leadership positions wind up looking less competent when they ask for other people’s help.

The researchers behind the 2015 study arrived at this conclusion after a series of clever experiments.

The first focused on 65 business students embarking on “leadership ventures” in which they participated in challenges like mountaineering in Antarctica and climbing a volcano in Ecuador. On each venture, students took turns acting as the leader of the day, meaning they had to coordinate all the activities.

As soon as the students returned from the expedition, they completed a questionnaire. Some students were asked how often each person had asked for help when they were the leader; other students were asked to rate each person’s competence as leader.

Results showed that male leaders who asked for a lot of help were perceived as less competent than male leaders who asked for less help. For female leaders, asking for help didn’t significantly affect their competence ratings.

A follow-up study suggests that the reason why we perceive male leaders who ask for help as less competent is that they seem less like a typical male leader.

Boss, laptop, employeeFlickr/Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and DesignPrevious research has found that female leaders are punished for acting dominant or assertive.

This research stands out as some of the first to look at the leadership behaviours that can hurt men. Scientists have generally paid more attention to the leadership behaviours that can hurt women, such as acting dominant or assertive.

While you could interpret this research to mean that men in positions of power should do their best to go it alone, the study authors caution against that takeaway. They cite research suggesting that asking for help is a way for leaders to learn and improve their team’s performance.

The researchers say that one way for male leaders to reduce the risks associated with asking for help is to attribute their requests to external, as opposed to internal, factors. As in, “The printer might be broken. Can you help me?” and not, “I don’t know how to fix the printer. Can you help me?”

Ultimately, being a male leader (or any leader) may require some flexibility and experimentation with different behaviours. The authors write: “[E]ffective leadership may necessitate a balance that incorporates collaboration, relationship building, and seeking assistance from others, including subordinates, when needed.”

Once you figure out the ideal balance, you’ll be on your way to tackling the day-to-day demands of managing your team … like a boss.

NOW WATCH: Katie Couric learned to be a leader by following this humble advice from her mum

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.