The Advice Monster
One of the most delightful management thinkers I know is Michael Bungay Stanier. He shares a coaching tip that all managers need reminding of: people don’t want advice. This is simple enough, however humans seem consumed by an overpowering desire to give advice, no matter how unwelcome it is. Bungay Stanier calls this desire the advice monster.
The idea that coaching does not involve giving advice is counter-intuitive. Surely, if you are the boss it is your job to give advice. Surely if someone comes to you for help then that is solicited advice, which surely must be ok. In fact, more often than not advice is both unwelcome and unhelpful. Advice can lead to resistance and resentment. Worst of all, the unwary manager may find that in giving advice they have somehow shifted the burden of dealing with the problem onto their own shoulders. These are all bad outcomes.
Where advice works and where it doesn’t
When someone asks for a simple fact “What is the best way to get downtown from here?” then advice is usually helpful. If you are the technical expert and someone asks for a technical answer then advice makes sense. However, there is a distinct line between situations where there is a right answer and giving advice around things that are ambiguous or involve difficult choices. When someone asks “How can I get along better with my annoying colleague?” straight-out advice usually leads nowhere.
Advice can fail for any number of reasons:
• You don’t know enough of the context to know what solutions are practical • You don’t know enough of the person’s motivations to know what will engage them • The advice seems to be understood, but is not really internalized • The person resents being told what to do • The person agrees but doesn’t emotionally commit to the action • The person convinces you that since you know what to do, then maybe you had better do it
What people actually need is not to be told what to do, but to be given help figuring it out for themselves. When they figure it out for themselves they will come up with a better answer, have a deeper understanding of that answer, and be committed to applying it.
The magic of questions
Bungay Stanier says that the way to help is to ask questions. Ask what the challenges are. Ask what the options are. Ask if there are other options beyond the first ones that came to mind. Ask which option is best. Ask if that solves the real challenge. Persistent helpful questioning rolls the issue over and over in the person’s mind until they have a deep understanding of the issue, their options and what they genuinely want to do.
The magic of questions also can come into play even when managers are giving orders. Solution-focused coach Coert Visser relates the story of an employee prone to angry outbursts. The manager is right to say this behaviour needs to stop. However, then rather than give the employee advice on how to stop the outbursts, the manager asked the employee to think through how they might solve the problem. Instead of the manager tossing out ideas that the employee would angrily bat away as being impractical, the manager encouraged the employee come up with their own ideas. The employee figured out that if he went for a short walk when he felt an outburst coming on this would give him time to calm down. It was a solution that worked for him. Questions were better than answers. People appreciate a thought partner in thinking through the options, but the thought partner should focus on asking simple questions to clarify the thinking, not provide a torrent of advice.
A monster to be feared
It is hard to avoid the advice monster. We love the idea that we can be in control by offering advice. It seems efficient just to tell the person what to do rather than go through the exercise of questioning. That’s why Bungay Stanier’s label “the advice monster” is a worthy one. It reminds us of that we have a dangerous tendency always lurking in the background. Good managers will learn to slay this monster and guide employees to their own solutions by patient questioning. By “patient” we mean five minutes or ten minutes. Not long, although it can seem an eternity when we are desperately eager to dole out advice.