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Why male leaders may struggle to ask for help

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Why male leaders may struggle to ask for help

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We’re living in an age where organizations are increasingly hoping to be collaborative and innovative, and are therefore encouraging employees to work together and share their knowledge with one another.  Central to this is, of course, being able to ask for help when you’re struggling with something.

Except, asking for help is something many of us struggle with.  After all, isn’t the request in itself an admission that you’re not capable of doing the job yourself?  Is it therefore a negative reflection on your abilities?

Why we struggle to ask for help

A recent study conducted by researchers at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, discovered that the symptom mentioned above is particularly strong among male employees, and with good reason, as the study found that male leaders are regarded as less able when they reached out to others for assistance.

“Frequently, in the context of leadership, we think of males as being advantaged because they represent the prototypical leader,” the authors say. “But what are the conditions under which this may not be the case, and male leaders are disadvantaged? That is focus of this work.”

The paper, which was published in the Leadership Quarterly journal, saw participants undertake a number of leadership building activities, including things like hiking, biking and sailing in a range of challenging environments.  Each participant was asked to lead a group during the exercise at some point, and surveys were used to understand how the group regarded the competence of each leader.  The survey was also designed to dig into how frequently the leader asked for help from their team.

A second element of the research consisted of an experimental study.  This time, participants were asked to picture themselves as an employee at a fictional company.  They were instructed to evaluate the performance of the CEO of that company based upon a simple description of a meeting held at the company.  The CEO used for the study was evenly described as being either male or female, whilst there was also an alteration in their willingness to ask for help.

Do we expect male leaders to know it all?

The results were very consistent across both the experimental study and the field data.  In both, it emerged that when the male leaders asked for help from their team, they were subsequently rated as less competent than their peers who survived without asking for assistance.  For women, whether they asked for help had no bearing on their subsequent ratings as a boss.

The authors suggest that the findings may have consequences for the careers of male leaders.

“When a person is perceived as though they are not competent because they are asking for help, that could probably have some long-term career implications with regard to promotions, appointments and evaluations,” the paper says. “Most importantly, these perceptions may serve as barriers to men’s willingness to ask for assistance when needed. Regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not, these various biases creep into our decision-making processes. Perceptions matter.”

How asking for help can help you

Of course, it isn’t all bad news.  A 2010 study found that there are various ways that you can suck up your way to the top of your organization, with one of the best ways of doing this being to ask for advice from the person you wish to flatter.  Now you might say that if you’re in a leadership role then you don’t need to flatter anyone above you, in which case a second study may be of interest.

It found that the more often we offer to give help to those around us, the easier it then becomes to ask for (and accept) help ourselves.  Maybe the key for male leaders is therefore to be more forthcoming with help and advice themselves.

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