Asking For Help

““A fool can ask more questions in a minute than a wise man can answer in an hour.”” – American proverbThey are driving in a strange city. He misses the exit. A half-hour later, they are wandering unfamiliar streets. She wants to roll down a window and ask directions. He would rather be shot.

It’s a common fear – asking for help. I am not exempt.

My Name Is MMF And I’m A Questionophobic.

I’d like to talk, today, about the fear of asking – and see if we can figure out what it’s all about. Because I think it has something to do with power and politics in the workplace. And because it might affect your future.

Another Theory You Didn’t Ask For

Let’s start with the most 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.

I don’t like asking directions, because it 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 a competitive, hierarchical world, is the most important asset.

Another way to say it is that, by and large, men compete for power, whereas women get what they want by other means.

A good author on this subject, by the way, is Deborah Tanner, a psychologist who writes very well on 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 Deborah Tanner has to say about asking questions. I’d bet she’d agree with me.

If you are a woman in business, this should interest you. You may not recognize that each time you ask a question you give a little bit of power away. If you ask enough questions, you will eventually give up not only power but also your competitive rank.

That is not always true in all situations. 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 someone else 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 this message. 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, men can be subtle 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.

Most men want as much power as they can get, but they realize that to get power they need to share it. When two men meet, they often have a “feel out” discussion in which they find out, in a seemingly casual way, certain important things about each other.

Primarily, they are interested in discovering areas of dominance – not to contest them but to accede to them. Like boxers in the first round, men will verbally jab and shift during a preliminary conversation, moving this way and then that, feinting and parrying, trying to discover who is the better (a) businessman, (b) moneymaker, (c) athlete, (d) intellect, (e) talker, (f) comedian, etc.

The questions will be so casual (almost to the point of being banal) that the female auditor might think nothing is being communicated at all.

Sizing Up The Competition . . . For Cooperation

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

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

“He can talk better than I can, but I can kick his ass if I have to. He has more money than I do, but my girlfriend is better looking than his wife. He is a stronger negotiator than I am, but I am more cunning.” And so on.

But the interesting thing is, as I suggested above, that the other man is having the sort of conversation with himself.

“He is physically superior to me, but I can outtalk him. He is able to attract better-looking women than me (Damn It!), but I can flash my bucks.” And so on.

Men calculate these internal rankings, more or less consciously, all the time – whether they admit it or not. Doing so is a necessary outcome of living in a competitive, hierarchical world. Men understand, almost from the moment they meet someone, who will have the upper hand in what area.

By assessing and acknowledging relative positions on the many different ladders of power, men can quickly find a relationship that works cooperatively. As we pointed out in Message #149, succeeding in business is just as much about cooperation as about competition.

A Strategy, More Or Less . . .

Asking questions can hurt. But only if you ask the wrong person the wrong question.

If you keep in mind the principle that the asker 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 and who you are asking.

Here’s a strategy that might help:

When your authority is clearly established, 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.

In other situations, however, when your power is not established, you should be careful about the questions you ask. Do 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 protegee in return for hard work and loyalty.) Asking questions makes you seem likeable. Subordinate, but likeable. So don’t be afraid to ask questions of a mentor.

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 intimidated 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 I were in charge of your soul, I’d tell you to ask every question that pops into your head. But since I feel a responsibility for your bank account, 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.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]