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Most of us are advice-giving maniacs. It’s an annoying human trait that the bestselling author of The Coaching Habit, and keynote TEDX talker Michael Bungay Stanier refers to as the “advice monster”. We know this fiend in ourselves and have been on the receiving end of it as well.
So, what’s wrong with advice? Is Stanier in his newly released book, The Advice Trap, saying we shouldn’t give advice ever?
No. Not quite. It’s a key part of how we operate as human beings. It’s how civilization has moved forward. Visit some of the best-known museums in the world and you’ll see cuneiform tablets from Egypt and exquisite Arabic script. That’s information and advice ancient peoples were passing on. It has a role.
But there are ways advice doesn’t work as well as we might wish it would. And by advice, Stanier means our advice to others.
1. Why workplace advice doesn’t always work
The first of three reasons why well-intentioned advice in the workplace doesn’t work: we’re not always working on the right problem.
In our organizations there are lots of very smart people, you included, working very hard to solve the wrong problem because we’re seduced into thinking the first problem that shows up is the real challenge–and it almost never is.
Our advice monster wants to leap in and start fixing things as soon as the slightest problem presents. We want to try and solve it right away. We don’t understand the full problem, and most often the person coming to us doesn’t really know what their real challenge is either. Neither really know what’s going on. And neither is taking the time to figure it out.
2. Not all advice is good advice
For argument’s sake, let’s say that you and that other person figure out with clarity and insight what the real challenge actually is. Stanier says that leads us to the second issue: our advice is not nearly as good as we think it is.
Watch a TEDX video or three on cognitive biases. We have this wiring in our head that keeps telling us: your advice is awesome because you’re awesome. But once you get into cognitive bias you’ll understand not only is your advice not that great most of the time but the more confident you are that you’re giving great advice, the more likely it is that the advice you’re giving is terrible.
3. Sharing advice doesn’t display strong leadership
Again, for the sake of argument, let’s say that not only do you have the right challenge, you also have a brilliant idea that would solve the problem. It’s gold dust. This is where the third issue crops up, which is: sharing that advice is not displaying the leadership that’s required. In other words, you’re at a crossroads of sorts.
You can be the leader who provides the fast answer.
Or you can be the leader who believes their job is less about providing the answer and more about helping others figure out what the real challenge is and what the best answer is.
Both of those options have benefits and disadvantages. The significant disadvantage of just telling the answer is that you’re training others to believe that anytime they run into a difficulty, you’re the person who will tell them what to do. There’s a fundamental underlying message communicated when you do this. Quite simply: I am better than you. You’re not good enough to figure this out. If you’re on the receiving end of somebody else’s advice time and time and time again, it’s a deeply disempowering experience, right?
One of the most powerful things you can do as a business leader (and human being) is to realize your job is not to have answers. Your job is to help other people figure it out for themselves because THAT is the act of empowerment.
But how do you help people find the real problem, a webinar listener queries.
“Good question,” Stanier responds. “I’ve got some answers and I’ll share them with you, but before I do, what are your first thoughts on this?” In an instant, he’s empowered the individual to share their own insights and turned what feels like an impromptu conversation into a coaching opportunity. Just like that, he’s demonstrated three fundamental coaching principles behind his advice monster theory:
#1 Be lazy: tame that innate drive to instruct and advise; take the “lazy” way out by asking questions.
#2 Be curious: know that every conversation can be led through curiosity and questioning.
#3 Be humble: use every interaction as a coach-like opportunity by simply being just a bit more curious.
The funny thing is, in HR we often wonder how to help our people become better coaches. We train them. We give them resources. But guess what? It doesn’t work often enough because these measures are just tactics and tools. What really needs to happen is to root out the advice monster by changing the way we think about leadership.
Being coach-like is one of the great acts of emotional intelligence Stanier posits because you’re taming your advice monster. “On the one hand, one of the principles of being coach-like is being lazy. On the other hand, you’re working really hard around a whole bunch of self-management stuff, because when you show up with curiosity rather than answers when you ask a question, it’s a moment of empowerment. You’re empowering that other person. You’re giving them power. You’re giving them control. You’re giving them status. You’re giving them authority – which means you’re diminishing your own power and control and status and authority. When you ask a question it’s not nearly as gratifying as giving advice.”
This is like going back to Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s and his seminal book Servant Leadership: a willingness to lead in a way that’s less comfortable for you for the sake of the people with whom you’re interacting so they can become more competent and confident and creative. More self-sufficient and more autonomous. As a leader you’re going to get better stuff done, you’re going to work less hard and you’re going to have more impact.
For some of us, it’s not that hard to shift to this way of thinking. For others, Stanier cautions, this behavior change is more difficult.
People talk about change and change management all the time: change is hard, change is difficult. But there is something called EASY-CHANGE. We’re experiencing it right now. Suddenly most of us have to work from home. We’re working in different ways. The culture of our teams, of our organizations, has shifted.
Maybe you’ve been making a rational case for working in this way for years – then COVID hits, the physical environment changes, and boom it actually happens. It may take a bit to get good at it: to get the right set up and tools, the right discipline and work cadence. But you get the hang of it and then you’re okay working from home. That’s an easy change. It’s like downloading an app and adding to what’s already there.
But there are plenty of challenges we face that can be called HARD CHANGE. For some of us to be more coach-like it’s easy change while for others it’s hard. It’s not a new app. It’s actually requiring a new operating system. It requires rewiring yourself. It requires you to level up. It requires you to understand that this is a commitment to the future you, not a refinement of the present you.
4. “Advice Monster” Types
Hard change, as it relates to coaching, is all about learning to tame your advice monster. And according to the bestselling coaching authority of the century, that monster has distinct personas each with their own prizes and punishments.
TELL-IT Advice Monster has persuaded you that the measure of your value to your organization, to your life, is to have all the answers, all the time, to everything. If you don’t, you’re failing and those around you are failing as well.
Prizes: short-term fixes, positive first impressions, ego boosts, expediency, feeling in control, being the important person. But what’s the price you, others, and your organization pay?
Punishments: bottlenecks, disempowerment, too much stress, not developing others “and of course”, adds Stainer, “you’re probably offering up crappy advice to solve the wrong problem, you’re training people to be incompetent.”
SAVE-IT Advice Monster has you convinced that the way you add value is to rescue everybody. You can’t let anybody struggle or stumble or fail. You’ve got to make sure everybody feels good all the time.
Prizes: the ego’s sense of self as a big-hearted and caring person, feeling valued, peace of mind, short term temporary wins, immediate gratification.
Punishments: people aren’t learning on the job, no learning from mistakes, your personal burnout, inadvertent creation of victims by effectively saying: you’re not capable of being responsible, accountable, or making your own choices.
CONTROL-IT Advice Monster lulls you into thinking the way you add value, the way you win, is to maintain control at all times. You don’t invite anybody else in, don’t share power, or responsibility or accountability because you believe if you give up just a little bit of control, chaos and failure are sure to follow.
Prizes: fewer errors, lower risk, ego-stroking (why would I give up control when I’m the best person here, the only person who understands what’s going on).
Punishments: nothing is scalable, you disallow serendipity – you stop the future from happening because you believe you’re right and therefore don’t allow other inputs that can shape, shift and influence different ways of thinking and doing.
All three monsters are present although 90% of us identify with SAVE-IT because it’s the least ugly of all. Regardless of the persona, to tame whichever advice monster is showing up for you, fundamentally it’s to stay curious longer in a conversation by having good questions and slowing down the rush to action and advice-giving. That’s the ACTION that starts making all the difference.
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