Asking for Help… Would You? Should You?

Let’s talk about one of my dumbest weaknesses: the fear of asking for help.

It’s dumb but it’s also interesting because it has lots to do with power and politics.

Let’s start with an obvious observation: This phobia is primarily a male thing. Most of the men I know have it. Most women I’ve known don’t even understand it.

Like most men, I don’t even like to ask directions when I’m in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I’d rather drive around aimlessly until I happen to hit on the right way. Asking directions makes me feel submissive. And I don’t like to feel submissive because I live in a world where submitting is a disadvantage.

When you submit, you relinquish power. And power, in the competitive, male-dominated business world, is the most valuable currency.

A good resource on this subject is Deborah Tanner. She’s a psychologist who writes about how men and women communicate. Her books have titles like Why What I Said You Didn’t Listen to Because What You Said I Already Said Yesterday. I would be interested to hear what she has to say about asking for help. I’d bet she’d agree with me.

If you are a woman in business, you may not recognize that asking questions about what you’re doing is a double-bladed proposition. On the one hand, it may endear you to the men you work with because they will like the implicit flattery. On the other hand, the asking itself is an indication (to the “male” psyche) that you are at least momentarily willing to play a submissive role.

Put differently, you should recognize that each time you ask a question you may be giving away a little bit of power. If you ask enough questions, you risk giving up the standing you’ve worked so long to achieve.

I am speaking in broad strokes to make a point. There are questions that do not yield power. And there are times when you will give a little (by asking a submissive question) in order to give a man the power he needs. But to ask questions without realizing the effect is to put yourself in an unnecessarily weak position.

I’m working my way through this as I write. It’s not something I’ve already figured out. So bear with me if I move back and forth a bit.

Questioning Your Power… Powering Your Questions

We are talking about power, generally. And about how men deal with it, specifically.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, most men are not brutes that think simply and mostly with their penises. They can be (and usually are, in business situations at least) subtle and sophisticated creatures. This is certainly true when it comes to passing around power. It’s not just about grabbing and pushing. It’s not King of the Mountain.

It is not stretching the truth to say that most men want as much power as they can get. (This could be said of women too, but that’s for another essay.) But because men have long been the primary brokers of power, they have learned that it is difficult, if not impossible, to simply grab power as they go. They realize that they are competing in an arena where thousands, if not millions, of other men are doing the same thing.

When two competitive men meet for the first time, they rarely launch into head butting to see who is dominant. Instead, they engage in a “feeling out” discussion.

They are primarily interested in discovering each other’s strengths and weaknesses in many different areas: raw intelligence, emotional intelligence, analytic skills, speaking ability, charisma, humor, and, of course, money and toys and famous friends.

Like boxers in the first round, men will verbally jab and shift, feinting and parrying, trying to discover who is the better (a) businessman, (b) moneymaker, (c) athlete, (d) intellect, (e) talker, (f) comedian, etc. Their questions will be so casual (almost to the point of being banal) that a woman listening in might think nothing is being communicated at all.

In fact, in what amounts to (by the woman’s standards) just a smattering of conversation, men not only extract a great deal of vital information. They also come to some sort of psychological agreement as to where, on Power’s Ladder, each of them stands.

Here’s the thing. There is not just one ladder of power. There are dozens, if not hundreds. And for every relationship, men quickly figure out and (here’s the key part) tacitly agree to relative positions on these many ladders.

“He can speak more effectively than I can. But if I have to, I can physically kick his ass.”

“He has more money than I have. But my girlfriend is better looking than his wife.”

“He is a stronger negotiator. But I am more cunning.”

“He is ahead of me in business now, but he has less patience than I do. I can eventually beat him.”

And so on.

Meanwhile, the other guy is having the same sort of conversation with himself.

“He is physically superior. But I can outtalk him.”

“He can attract better-looking women (Damn It!). But I can flash my bucks.”

And so on.

Most men won’t admit it (and some may not even be aware of it) but they calculate these internal rankings all the time. (Women make mental comparisons too, but they do it in a different way and for a different purpose – which I hope to get to in another essay.) These fast and manifold and subtle calculations are useful and even necessary when you are trying to achieve success in a hierarchical world. Men understand, almost from the moment they meet someone, who will have the upper hand.

By assessing and acknowledging their relative positions, men can quickly find a relationship that works cooperatively.

A Business Strategy, More or Less…

So, yes, asking questions can hurt you. But only if you ask the wrong person the wrong question.

If you keep in mind that the asker usually gives up a little power in exchange for an answer, you can use questions to enhance your career. It’s all about where you are on the power ladder.

When you’re the boss, your authority is clearly established. So you can ask every question you need to. In fact, you should probably ask more questions than you feel you need to. You should, for example, ask your subordinates what they think of your ideas. And don’t argue with them when they tell you. The more entrepreneurial you are, the more likely it is that you don’t ask enough questions.

When your power is not established, it’s good to ask questions of a mentor you can trust. (The mentor relationship is trustworthy, because it is based on recognizing that the mentor has the power now but will gradually cede it to the protégé in return for hard work and loyalty. And asking questions makes you seem likeable. Subordinate, but likeable.) But ask questions of your boss… carefully. Getting your boss to like you is important. If he is weak-minded, it may be enough to keep you employed forever. But ultimately your career will stall if you rely on being liked rather than respected. Whenever possible, ask your boss only questions that will show him how smart and capable you are.

Don’t ask your peers questions unless (a) you are not competing with them or (b) you don’t mind if they are ahead of you on the Power Ladder.

Ask technical specialists the questions you need to ask, but don’t be put off by their jargon. Keep a calm demeanor and try to pose your questions in such a way that they understand you are impressed with their specific knowledge but not in any way intimidated by it.

If you were to put me in charge of your growth, happiness, and satisfaction as a human being, I’d tell you to ask every question that pops into your head. But since you’re probably reading this for advice on achieving and earning more, I’ve got to give it to you straight. When it comes to questions, act like a man – even if it means you have to drive an extra few blocks in an unfamiliar neighborhood.