Be careful giving advice

It’s that question many managers hunger to be asked: “Can you give me some advice?” There is nothing we love more than when our experience is valued. We want to help people by offering anecdotes, observations, and direction. Almost all advice is well-intentioned, and most of it is probably good.

But when is advice not helpful? What if advice does more harm than good?

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Giving advice is risky for managers because of what I call “the invisible gun effect.” Simply by virtue of being someone’s manager, your words carry more weight, your suggestions can be interpreted as commands, and as a consequence you have to be extremely careful about what you say.

Typically, when we give advice, we don’t intend for the person to just turn around and do exactly what we said. We know that people have agency, and we expect our direct reports to exercise their judgment in making decisions. These are reasonable expectations, and often we reward good judgment and decisiveness in our performance review processes as well.

The fact remains: any form of advice may be interpreted as a “best practice” or even as a direct order by someone who reports to you.

It’s a bad idea for someone to plug your solution directly into their situation because all situations and people are different. Even if the situation is as identical as you could imagine, the world itself has changed since it happened to you.

“It’s dangerous to use someone else’s map of reality to navigate yours."—Sahil Bloom

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If you absolutely, positively must give advice, here are a few things you must do:

  • Ask permission; don’t give advice to people who don’t want it.

  • Underscore that the recipient of your advice has agency to act. Share your confidence in their ability to make a decision. Explicitly say “I trust you to use this information to make your own decision.”

  • Prefer sharing experiences in the first person, rather than directives. Say “this is what happened to me, and this is what I did,” rather than “I think you should…”

  • Equally avoid saying “If I were you…” You are not them, they are not you. Respect everyone’s ability to make the best decision for themselves.

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Better yet, avoid giving advice entirely.

Think about it this way: what are the best- and worst-case scenarios?

The best-case scenario is that the individual integrates your advice, takes some action, and everything works out. That’s great, but the idea wasn’t theirs; they aren’t able to benefit from the process of figuring out the solution themselves.

The worst-case scenario is that the individual integrates your ideas or adopts them wholesale, everything goes absolutely sideways, and they blame you for giving them “such bad advice.”

Instead of giving advice, use the GROW model.

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GROW is a coaching model that breaks problem solving into four prompts:

  • Goal: What do you want?

  • Reality: Where are you now?

  • Options (or Obstacles): What could you do / what is standing in the way?

  • Will (or Way forward): What will you do?

When someone comes to you looking for advice, before you dive right in to share your thoughts and experiences, consider whether you’re really doing it for them or because it feels good to talk about yourself.

Try asking some questions. Really seek to understand the shape of the problem. Ask what an ideal outcome might look like, and how they’d recognize it. Ask what they’ve considered, or tried already.

By helping someone see new angles, and describe the outcomes they want, you arm them to solve the problem for themselves, which will pay them back for years to come.

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Some questions for you:

  • When you’ve asked for advice in the past… Have you really wanted it?

  • When someone asks you for advice, how can you partner with them to find a solution?

Lead photo by @purzlbaum on Unsplash

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