Verbal Strategies for Seeking Help in Organizations1


  • 1

    This study was partially funded by the Knox Bequest from the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. I am grateful to J. Richard Hackman, who generously offered help. I thank David Bates, Jonathan Teich, Cynthia Spurr, Jennifer Schmiz, and Debbie Boyle for help in data gathering at the field site. Robert Rosenthal, Marcie Tyre, Richard Walton, Nalini Ambady, Amy Edmondson, Mark Hallahan, and Nancy Katz offered valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

2 Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Fiona Lee, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 E. University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1109. e-mail;


The verbal strategies used to frame requests for help are integral to the help-seeking process. Drawing on politeness theory, it was predicted that gender, power, and norms affect usage of verbal strategies in seeking help, and verbal strategies predict interpersonal outcomes. Two studies showed that: (a) individuals used more strategies under collectivistic than individualistic norms; (b) under individualistic norms, men used more strategies when seeking help upward, and women used more strategies when seeking help laterally; and (c) those who used more strategies provided higher quality information, and were perceived more favorably by others. These results suggest that verbal strategies not only reflect important relational and contextual factors, but also serve multiple social functions.