The Consequences of Giving Advice
(An excerpt from my upcoming book “You’ve Got Algorithm, But Can You Dance? – Learn how to lead with heart and empathy.”)
There is one stumbling block that all managers and teachers share when developing their teams and creating autonomy: the propensity to give advice.
I understand how easy it is to give advice, how naturally it comes to us and how often it is needed. When done well, people on both sides of advice benefit.
Moreover, giving advice “softly” can provide influence and inspiration.
Also, as the advice-giver, you can learn from the problems and questions brought to you, which can create a form of obligation that recipients will want to reciprocate. Overall, advice takes no time, it gets things moving, you feel great for providing it, and your team is grateful for it. So, if there are plenty of benefits in giving advice, why am I calling it a “stumbling block?”
The reason we have a tendency to give advice often stems from the way we were raised. The rewards are immediate because giving advice means you have power, whether actual or perceived.
If you are the type of person who starts a sentence with “Have you tried this?” or “Why don’t you?” you probably fall into a dangerous “advice-giving mode.” Let’s face it, over the years of learning and owning your technical and algorithmic abilities, you’ve become quite capable and you welcome challenges so you can provide advice, stand out, and make something better.
However, neuroscience proves that giving advice detracts the receiver from exercising their autonomy and self-leadership. Your advice is robbing people of the ability to use creativity and find a solution independently with self-accountability. As is backed by brain research, our minds tend to offload when receiving advice. When you give someone instructions, there isn’t much going on in the receiver’s brain, it just softly hums along. I’m sure you’ve seen an audience “tune out,” even if they’re making eye contact.
To dismantle the reasons why we fall into giving advice, we also have to understand why this tendency is so ingrained in us.
I grew up in the ‘70s, and my parents were the kind who told my two siblings and me what to do, and we did it, or we’d “get it.” There was no positive reinforcement methodology. We knew we did a good job when we didn’t get yelled at or smacked in the back of the head for messing up. It was never anything abusive, just a “realignment,” so to speak, that included loud Italian words and stern faces.
It was efficient in the short term because we got stuff done, and it was easy for my parents to keep their ducks in a row.
My parents would tell me “Il lavoro si fa con amore.” Which means, “Work is done with love.” Well, the love in our family was never missing, however, I can’t say we loved that highly “pedagogic” parenting style, nor all the work we had to do. My parents’ technique clearly cannot be transferred to organizational management.
I was coaching a client not long ago, and he asked me how to tell people what to do without being too direct. I asked him why he wanted to know that, and his reply was quite clear.
“Well, I hate it when people tell me what to do.” He answered.
“And why is that?” I asked.
“Because I know how to do my work, and if I don’t, I’ll figure it out. And if I need support I’ll ask. But I want to decide when to reach out.”
His was a typical answer. When people feel that their choices are restricted by others telling them what to do, said people will resist, regardless of whether the feedback was helpful or not. People being told what to do then tend to rebel or do the opposite. Psychologists call this phenomenon “psychological reactance”; it is our brain’s response to a threat to our freedom, which, in this case, includes someone telling you what and how to do something.
This psychological reaction makes people behave in “direct restoration,” which is a term used for people who want to do the opposite of what is asked in order to maintain their autonomy.
For example, if asked to put the seat belt on before leaving your driveway, some might not do it right away because they want to keep autonomy by deciding themselves (yes, that would be me!). We could find ways not to fall into reactance mode when someone tells us what to do by reframing our thoughts, but that’s not really what I’m after here. Instead, if you want to change the way you “tell people what to do without telling,” you’ll need to switch to a coaching mindset, where you ask your team powerful questions to help them find their own solutions to the challenges they are facing or goals they want to achieve. As you help them reflect, you also empower them to take ownership and as they share their ideas, they will hold themselves accountable f