Making the Most of Conflicting Advice From Mentors

Making sense of conflicting advice is challenging at all career stages, but it is a critical workplace skill.

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Knowing how to handle conflicting advice is a critical workplace skill. Conflicting advice is more common today because amplified complexity and uncertainty open the door to multiple opinions. Greater workplace diversity also makes conflicting advice more likely: When mentors bring different perspectives, experiences, or backgrounds to the table, they may offer clashing guidance.

For example, Oscar was just offered a new job at another company. Taking the job would mean a higher salary and more leadership responsibilities. But he loves working with his current boss and colleagues, and he really likes his company’s culture.

Faced with this big career decision and unsure what to do, Oscar hopes his three longtime mentors will guide him as they have in the past. But each of them steers him in a very different direction. The first mentor, his boss, strongly urges Oscar to stay in his existing job. She says waiting for a promotion and pay raise at a place he really likes makes the most sense. A second mentor — a colleague in another department — urges Oscar to take the new job, reminding him that he’s been bored for a while and wants more responsibility. The third mentor, whom Oscar met at a conference years ago, advises Oscar to use the job offer to negotiate a promotion at his current company.

Getting conflicting advice from his mentors might seem like a good thing; Oscar can now see three different possible paths and consider which one to follow. Yet his situation is stressful. He looks to his mentors for guidance, but their disagreement about the job offer makes his decision seem less clear, not more. And because he relies on his mentors for sponsorship and support, he worries that any decision he makes could damage his relationship with one or more of them. If he chooses one mentor’s advice, will he annoy or even anger the others?

Our research shows that mentees tend to make better decisions if they embrace and work through conflicting advice. For example, if Oscar sees his mentors’ differing suggestions as a platform for thoughtful reflection and discussion, he can figure out what he really wants and values. He can rationally compare the pros and cons of each idea — and use his gut reaction to identify which path feels right to him. He might choose to follow one advised path, or he might arrive at a decision that matches none of his mentors’ suggestions — perhaps pursuing a more senior position in a different department at his current company.

An added benefit to making the most of conflicting advice is personal growth. Being pushed to make choices without unified guidance from mentors teaches people to find their own voices and trust their internal compasses. As Oscar processes his three mentors’ suggestions and ultimately makes a decision about whether to take the job, he learns to chart his own way. He also gets better at maintaining his mentor relationships by learning how to stay connected despite differences of opinion.

Being able to use conflicting advice effectively is challenging at all career stages. Entry-level employees, who are often young, struggle to figure out what is right for them when they receive conflicting advice. This is because their internal compasses may not be fully developed. Entry-level employees may also be less comfortable disagreeing with their mentors, especially with mentors in powerful positions. Senior employees may struggle less with deciding what to do amid disagreement, but — because their jobs are often more challenging and ambiguous — they are more likely to encounter work issues that provoke especially deep disagreement among their mentors.

So how do you reap the benefits of conflicting advice from your mentors? Below, we offer tips to help mentees.

Tips for Working Through Conflicting Advice:
  • Ask for clarification. Reengage your various mentors and ask questions about their advice. Why did they make the suggestions that they did? Why would they recommend their suggested path over others? Also explain your own doubts or concerns about their guidance. Talking more with each mentor will allow you to think through each possibility collaboratively. It will also help you understand where your mentors are coming from and whether their suggestions are driven by the things that matter most to you.
  • Ask others for further advice. Although it might seem counterintuitive to add to the pool of suggestions when you are already struggling to choose among the ones you have, gathering more perspectives can be helpful. Try to connect with people who you think understand you well and will support your decision, whatever it is. An added bonus: These people could become new mentors for you in the future.
  • Evaluate the strength of each mentor relationship. If you’re worried that deciding not to follow a mentor’s advice will hurt your relationship, try having an open conversation about your concerns. If mentors express genuine support for you regardless of what you decide, you will rest easier. However, if any of your mentors signal conditional support — predicated on you taking their advice — you may want to question whether this person is someone you should continue to rely on.
  • Get help with stress. Feeling anxious when you receive conflicting advice is normal. But don’t let stress become the main focus. Instead, try to identify why you are anxious. Are you uncomfortable disagreeing with your mentors or anxious about losing their much-needed support? Are you worried that you don’t know how to make a good decision? Ask someone you trust to help you think about what is causing your anxiety, since it can be hard to do this alone. As you discuss your feelings and what underlies them, you can see more clearly which concerns are valid and develop strategies for addressing them. This will reduce your stress and free up energy to process the conflicting advice.

It is easier for mentees to work through conflicting advice if their mentors offer sufficient support; the above strategies are most effective when mentors understand and respond appropriately to situations involving clashing guidance. With that in mind, mentors can consider the following tips.

Tips for Mentors:
  • You are not mentoring in a vacuum. Recognize that your mentees are likely asking others for advice and may therefore be getting conflicting suggestions. Communicate that you are glad they are seeking multiple viewpoints. Be clear that you are open to hearing about and discussing other mentors’ ideas. And be willing to shift your own perspective based on what you learn about others’ guidance.
  • Don’t make the decision for them. People often look to their mentors to tell them what to do, and it can feel good to satisfy their need for clear instruction. But you will be far more useful if you resist the temptation to choose among the pieces of conflicting advice yourself. Instead, encourage mentees to make decisions for themselves. Serve as a sounding board and ask good questions. This will lead mentees to choices that are right for them, not you. It will also allow them to grow — people only develop stronger internal compasses if you let them.
  • Make disagreement feel safe. Tell mentees that it is not “your way or the highway,” and that two-way debate is expected and appreciated. Signal that your relationship with them will stay strong regardless of the decision they make. Show them that you support their efforts to make a decision for themselves. And let them know that learning to find their own way is an important part of their personal development.
  • Share stories about your own mentoring experiences. Describe times when you found it difficult to be mentored by others. This helps people learn more about you and normalizes open dialogue about challenging mentor situations. By talking not only about what happened but also how you felt in such situations, mentees will feel more comfortable discussing their current feelings with you. Stories about times when you disagreed with but stayed close to a mentor are especially useful, since they show that mentor relationships are more resilient than people may think.

Getting conflicting advice from mentors is not easy, but the strategies outlined above can help people capitalize on divergent guidance to make better decisions. By working through mentors’ different viewpoints, mentees grow personally in key ways that equip them to cope better with future challenges.

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