Humans in general, and especially leaders, we love to teach others.
We love to tell others what they should do.
We enjoy giving advice.
So if somebody comes to us and says, “I’m struggling with this or I don’t know how to do that,” we feel so much pressure to solve their problem for them. To be smart. To have all the answers.
Two world-leading coaching experts, Michael Bungay Stanier and Dr. Marcia Reynolds, agree it’s a mistake many leaders make. In this blog post, I share their advice (oh, the irony!) as given on my leadership podcast, the TalentGrow Show, on why leaders should stop doling out so much advice and what to do instead.
Are you an Advice-Giving Maniac?
Coaching expert and author Michael Bungay Stanier says it quite bluntly in our conversation on episode 31 of the TalentGrow Show podcast: “I think we are all advice-giving maniacs. You can be in a conversation with somebody you don’t know at all, you’ve been talking for 25 seconds, and you’re like, “I don’t know what’s going on here. I don’t know who you are, but I’ve got some ideas that I’d like to share with you about what you should be doing.””
Sound familiar?... Yeah, I know. I’m right there with ya.
The thing is, it comes in part from a good place, says Michael – you’re trying to be helpful!
Much of it is due to habit.
What’s the deal with the Advice Monster?
We spend a lifetime being rewarded for having an answer. It starts in school, goes to university, goes into our work. Our processes reward that.
And leaders – the over-achieving, highly competent, driven bunch that we are – we’re especially susceptible to this need to advise.
“There’s also something just psychologically nice about being in the position to give advice,” explains Michael.
But more than likely, you’re probably giving the wrong advice.
“And even if it’s brilliant advice, they probably aren’t really listening to it or understanding it or going to act on it.”
Well if advice is not so helpful, then what is a better approach?
Instead of doling out advice, leaders should ask questions
“When we ask a question, we step into a place of more ambiguity. You ask a question and suddenly you think,
“Was that a good question? …
“What are they going to say? …
“What if they have some crazy answer that I don’t really understand? …
“What’s happening now? …
“Why are they waiting so long to answer the question, they’ve waited for well over a second! …
“And you’ve empowered them, given them control of the conversation. That’s the thing about empowerment: It means giving up power so somebody else has it. So asking a question is a less comfortable place but in some ways, this is what servant leadership is. Where you say to yourself, “I’m willing to feel uncomfortable to play the bigger game of helping them understand their own answers, helping them become more self-sufficient, helping them become more accountable, and allowing me in the end to actually work less hard.”
beware the Advice Monster's favorite hiding place
What’s that, you say? The fake question.
You know how you can take a piece of advice and attach a question mark at the end?
It might sound like,
“Have you considered…?”
“Did you try…?”
“Have you thought of…?”
“What about the…?”
That. Don’t do that.
More from Michael:
“I’m not saying stop giving advice or never give anybody any advice at all. I’m merely saying, can you slow down the rush to give advice? What you’ll find is the longer you can wait, the more likely it is that they’ll figure it out by themselves. And if they don’t, then the more likely it is that your advice will be more focused, more useful and more likely to be acted upon.”
The Advice Monster is alluring
Executive coach, leadership expert, and best-selling author, Dr. Marcia Reynolds, MCC, agrees in episode 13:
“There’s this phenomenon where I think I know what is best but I just don’t do it.”
We come up with a million excuses.
Leaders say, “I know I need to spend more time talking to people and listening to them, but I don’t do it because ...”
“And the reasons are always the same,” says Marcia.
“They always start with, “It takes so much time and people are busy as well as I’m busy…” and then they come down to, “That’s not really what they want from me. They want me to give them the answers. They want to come to me and I give them the answers so they can just go on and do their work.”
Sound familiar? Sounds like the Advice Monster talking…
But there’s a dark underbelly to the Advice Monster
Marcia warns against this trap: “If we dig even deeper, especially with new leaders, there’s always the excuse, “Well, but if I’m not the one who has the answers, they will think I’m incompetent.”
“So when we get down to it, there’s this fear of saying, “What would you think to do?” And helping people to think through it because they’re afraid of being judged that they don’t have the answers, that they’re not a competent leader.
“And I find this all over the world, that it’s not just time, but it’s fear that stops these leaders from just taking a moment and just being with the person in front of them, and trying to help them to work through their problems, their issues and even what’s possible for them. Even though that’s what the employees are crying for.”
I think that often when people ask for advice they don’t even know how to ask for it. And the quickest way is the “just tell me what to do” way. It’s a habit, or a cop-out mechanism.
The best leaders persevere in their work of developing others
Leaders must doggedly avoid falling into the trap of giving their people the ‘easy way out’
Here’s Marcia: “When we just give people the answers we perpetuate that ‘learned helplessness’, that they don’t have to think for themselves. So even when you start to try to get people to think for themselves they may resist that. Like, “Why aren’t you giving me the answers?”
Instead, she suggests, recall your purpose as a leader. Are you just there to “get things done or is it really to develop that person sitting in front of you?”
Marcia believes that as leaders, our job is not just developing the skills of our people but also developing their minds. “And when we develop their mind, then they can actually start doing things far more successfully for themselves. They get that feeling of mastery, autonomy, and purpose.”
[Read more about the The 3 Secrets of Motivating and Inspiring Others on my blog post about master, autonomy, and purpose]
Marcia suggests that it’s those leaders who do this for us that we truly remember and admire because they helped us to expand who we think we are and what we’re capable of doing.
And just imagine how much more powerful you will be as a leader – in terms of your impact and effectiveness?
And how much better will the world be if we have more leaders like that?
- It’s easy to give advice. It’s harder to support people in solving their own problems.
- But people grow when you ask more questions and help them think it out.
- So tame your advice monster and be the kind of leader that leaves people better than you got them.
Have you ever experienced this, whether as a leader or from a leader? Chime in below in the comments and let’s get a conversation going!
P.S. Michael Bungay Stanier’s excellent book, The Coaching Habit, is one year old, and Michael is throwing a ‘haiku contest’ to celebrate it! Be sure to enter – you could win $1,700 or $170. Get more info and enter your haiku in the contest over on Michael’s website. What fun!
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