Dear Negotiation Coach: Need help? Don’t be afraid to ask

By on / Negotiation Skills

Q: I recently took a job with a new company, where I will take part in negotiating complex deals. Naturally, this makes me nervous. I think I would benefit from my colleagues’ advice, as they are more experienced in our industry and could probably offer a fresh perspective, especially when I’m feeling stuck. At the same time, I am worried that asking for advice will lead them to think I’m in over my head. What should I do?

A: In negotiation, as in many other areas of our personal and professional lives, we often sense that someone else’s advice could help us move forward. But as you expressed, the fear of seeming incompetent may keep us from asking. We might also be concerned about burdening others and wonder if the advice will even help. As a result, we often end up trying to figure things out on our own.

As it turns out, this intuition about the consequences of seeking advice is mistaken. Consider the results of new research my colleagues Alison Wood Brooks (of Harvard Business School), Maurice Schweitzer (of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School), and I conducted. In one lab experiment, we told 170 students that we were matching them with an anonymous partner in the same room. In reality, the “partner” was a computer-simulated actor. Participants had to complete a challenging brainteaser under time pressure and were told that their partner would complete the same brainteaser later in the study. After the participants completed the brainteaser, they received one of the following two messages from their partner: “I hope it went well. Do you have any advice?” or “I hope it went well.”

After receiving this message, participants evaluated their partners on a couple of measures. Participants who were asked for advice rated their partners higher on competence as compared with partners who didn’t ask for advice. In addition, participants who were asked for advice reported that they would be more likely to ask their partners for advice on a similar task in the future. Thus, in contrast to common beliefs, being asked for advice actually improved judgments of the advice seeker’s competence.

In follow-up studies, we found that a request for advice flatters the adviser and increases her self-confidence, which in turn boosts her positive perceptions of the advice seeker. In other words, someone who is asked for advice is likely to conclude, “This individual is smart to recognize that I have a lot to offer.”

In another study on advice giving, researchers Katie A. Liljenquist (Brigham Young University) and Adam D. Galinsky (Columbia University) had pairs of MBA students engage in a simulated performance review. When those playing the role of a junior manager received a surprisingly negative performance review and asked for advice on how to improve, those playing their bosses considered them to be more likable and competent than those who did not ask for advice. Similarly, when you are in conflict with another negotiator, asking her for advice increases your counterpart’s perspective taking and thus increases the odds of
a quick resolution, Liljenquist and Galinsky found.

Getting back to your situation, I advise you to reach out to your colleagues, as doing so could not only help you in your negotiations but also enhance your reputation at work. Don’t be afraid to ask for their advice: It’ll help you while also making them feel good about themselves. And to ensure that you absorb any advice you receive with an open mind, you might consult the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Viking Adult, 2014) by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Francesca Gino
Professor of Business Administration
Harvard Business School
Author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan
(Harvard Business Review Press, 2013) 

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By e-mail: negotiation@law.harvard.edu
(Please write “Q and A” in the subject line.)
By mail: Negotiation Briefings, Program on Negotiation,
Harvard Law School,
1563 Massachusetts Avenue,
513 Pound Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138-2903

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