The art and perils of giving advice

Guidance without manipulation or ulterior motives

Fred Mael

As a successful leader, you are asked to advise employees and others. People may seek your advice about job search, career choice, career change, or promoting themselves or their products. You may even be asked about non-professional issues if you are valued for your leadership qualities and prominent in your community. You may be willing to spend the time and sincerely want to help, yet your advice may leave your visitors feeling confused, disappointed and in worse shape than when they came to you.

If you were merely giving them straight talk and saving them from false illusions, it might be a bitter but useful pill for them to swallow. Sometimes, however, advice doesn’t even serve that purpose. It merely comes across as callous or even self-serving and does nothing for the person seeking the advice. Assuming that you never intend to do that, that you have valuable life experience to share, and that you want to be a “go to” person whose advice is worthwhile, perhaps you could just use some tweaking of technique when it comes to giving advice. Perhaps you need only avoid the common pitfalls of those giving advice.

Why They Seek Your Advice

First, it pays to review why someone is seeking your advice. Here are some of the possibilities:

Perceived wisdom – you have a reputation for breaking down issues across many topics based on your powers of reasoning.
Perceived kindness – you have a reputation for listening to people and enabling them to clarify their issues, even if you don’t have specific solutions.
Perceived knowledge – you have a reputation for knowing a certain subject matter (an industry, a profession, an emerging market) well.
Perceived connections – you are perceived as being able to open doors to those who control resources such as jobs, contracts, and political connection.
Perceived power –  you can actually make your advice happen, either because you are this person’s manager or because you somehow control the ability of the advice seeker to act on he advice.

Notice that the farther you move from the wisdom/kindness end of the continuum, the less the interaction is about the advice-seeker and the more it becomes about you, the adviser. As the advice-giver with power and connections you may have more tangible value to give to the seeker – but you also run the greater risk of spending less time listening to what the seeker actually needs at this stage of his life. It is in those cases where your advice has the greatest danger of either not helping or doing harm. Still, anyone approached for advice for any of these reasons can leave an advice-seeker frustrated and wishing they had never come.

The Nine Unhelpful Techniques

Here, then are nine types of well-intentioned but unhelpful techniques to be aware of when giving advice:

  1. Do as I did – You may assume that your Horatio Alger, rags to riches story (or conversely, your Gilman to Harvard Business School trajectory) is the one and best blueprint for being successful like you, but how useful is it for the person sitting across the desk from you? He can’t retrace your steps, he needs to make the best choices within the hand he is currently dealt. Do you have advice for him within his life? If you don’t, remember that he didn’t come here to do a fawning profile of you for a fan magazine. Shorten the biography and return to his needs.
  2. I have a hammer – Also known as ‘what I always tell people is..’, this is a variation of #1, a principle that you think worked for you. You have no proof that it was what made the difference in your case, nor do you have proof that it helped the last fifty people you gave that advice. It may put you in a good light because it shows off your claimed virtue of honesty, courage, or ingenuity, but as advice for the person coming to you, it has a good chance of being irrelevant to what they need.
  3. Self-serving advice – When I was looking for my first job as a consultant, I was invited to talk with a well known psychologist under the guise of a mentoring meeting. After a long conversation he told me that he had no job leads, contacts, or advice but that he would be happy to sell me his leadership training program for $1200. While that might have been especially egregious, be alert to how your advice to someone might be taking advantage of their neediness or moving them in a direction that they can’t objectively evaluate.
  4. Next year’s conference – Sometimes advice is sound but it’s a long range strategy to a problem that needs a short term solution first. A person seeking a job in a certain field may indeed benefit from going to a conference that includes a job fair at which many employers will be present. But if the conference is nine months from now, it is critical to remember that some people need to find a job now! Similarly, any advice that focuses exclusively on a solution that is far in the future or contingent on uncontrollable events is only part of the picture and portraying it as the solution is misleading.
  5. What do you have to lose – You offer some advice with a poor likelihood of working for the seeker, something that involves great expenditures of time and money. When they object you give them the “what do you have to lose” line, forgetting that the advice seeker is sifting through many sources of information and ideas, that he or she actually has finite time, funds and enthusiasm and that misplaced efforts will be demoralizing and will come at the expense of better efforts. While it is the seeker’s responsibility to make choices, using that line feeds the notion that in their desperation there are no choices, that they need to “go for broke.”
  6. Falling in love with your idea – When you are brainstorming ideas to help someone, you run the risk that the creativity of your idea may blind you to the fact that your favorite idea may be impractical, risky, or have a low chance of success. Or, it has none of these failings but it’s not applicable to the person you are advising. It’s something you would consider fun or a challenge, but it’s totally outside her personality. And so the dance begins: you present your idea, she deflects it. You counter her arguments; she says she’s not comfortable. Bottom line: she came for advice and now she is forced into poking holes in the idea you fell in love with. Moreover, now you’re not open to any other ideas because you’ve locked in on your idea. This leads to the next problem:
  7. Getting offended if your idea isn’t followed. You start to get argumentative with the advisee to the point that they are now defending themselves from your idea and it becomes a referendum on your feelings. You question his desire, his guts, or his ability to think outside-the-box. He walks away with the feeling: If I don’t take this person’s advice, I better not ever speak to him again. Considering that the seeker asked you for input rather than for a judicial decision, he shouldn’t be bound by your advice and he certainly shouldn’t have to make hurting your feelings his biggest concern.
  8. Try – Sometimes you simply have no ideas or advice for this person. She was sent to you by mistake and misperceived your area of expertise. However, you aren’t willing to admit it so – you start wasting her time with simplistic, lame information so that you will be thanked and so that you can save face. For example, if you have no leads for the person to find a job in your field, you counter with “Have you ever considered” If you have no idea what physician to refer in a given specialty, you counter with: “Have you tried Google or the Yellow Pages?” Instead of insulting their intelligence as if they hadn’t thought of the obvious before coming to you, just admit you don’t know and save the person some time.
  9. Consolation prize – you just shot down someone’s dream: perhaps you showed her she doesn’t have the aptitude to be a surgeon or the funding to start a certain kind of business, and you feel you have to soften the blow. To do that, you suggest something that you know nothing about but that sounds exotic or interesting to you: “have you ever considered becoming a taxidermist? I heard they make good money”. You send her on a wild diversionary chase which is not geared to a reevaluation of the situation; it’s really meant to distract her for the moment from thinking of you as heartless. You would be better off just saying something comforting (if you have it in you).

What is the common theme in these tendencies? They involve focusing on your needs as the advisor rather than focusing exclusively on the needs of the person seeking your help. remember: You do not have to take time out of your schedule to offer free advice to most people. But once you do, you are committing to help someone else for his sake and his sake alone. your priorities should be:

to listen very carefully to what it is the person needs from you;
to ask as many questions as necessary to understand the context for the choices, decisions or actions in question
to be alert to what the person can tolerate and will benefit hearing from you
to calibrate your suggestions to what the person is capable of acting on now or at a future date; and
to leave your ego out of the equation; the fact that the person came to you and is willing to take your advice seriously should provide you with sufficient personal gratification.

Avoid the pitfalls and keep the other’s needs paramount, and you can give advice worthy of your status as a leader.

Fred Mael, PhD, consults in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, performance management, and executive coaching This article appeared originally in the April 2008 issue of Washington SmartCEO magazine.