Taking lead on double standard

Anya Litvak
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh — Gone are the days when the business world expected men to act like men and never ask for help.

Or are they?

While no management consultant would advise male leaders to clam up instead of asking their subordinates for assistance, research suggests that men who seek help are perceived as less than — less competent, less strong, less of a leader.

In a series of experiments that followed Wharton Business School MBA students on spring-break leadership adventures around the world, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Duke University and the University of San Diego showed that while women leaders could ask for help with impunity, men incurred a “competence cost.”

The study, published last year in the journal the Leadership Quarterly, took advantage of situations where asking for help was inescapable — scaling a volcano in Ecuador, traversing a glacial ice cap in Antarctica, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Each day, one participant in the group was randomly selected as a leader and later assessed by others in the group.

The trend was clear: men who asked for help were perceived as weaker than those who didn’t.

David Lebel, assistant professor of business administration at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business at Pitt and one of the paper’s co-authors, said male leaders shouldn’t be discouraged from tapping their employees for assistance. But they might want to strategize how they do it to avoid appearing incompetent.

“Leaders do need to ask for help to learn,” he said.

To deflect some of those gender perceptions, Lebel recommends flattery. Ask for someone’s expertise, he said. “Play that up.”

“Make this about advice seeking,” he said.

It can also help to go outside the workplace for help, said Dexter Hairston, a YMCA director in Pittsburgh who also heads a teen leadership program.

Hairston has a trusted confidant he turns to when he needs to bounce ideas off someone without being judged.

“If I don’t know the answers, I owe it to whomever I’m impacting to get the answers,” he said. “I can do that quietly,” he said, without seeming weak.

Carol Walker, a principal with Prepared to Lead, a Boston-based consultancy for young leaders, said the modern knowledge-based workplace has no room for gender-based help-seeking penalties.

“Many of these issues aren’t gender specific at all,” she said.

Instead, how leaders draw contributions from their subordinates is more a matter of establishing how they’ll be valued.

“I think the millennial generation in general is just much more understanding of the fact that we all have different skills,” she said. “There’s less of a value for hierarchy.”