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At companies such as IBM and Motorola, mentorship and executive coaching are now standard parts of leadership development programs. People seeking wisdom from mentors is common not only in business, but in all facets of life.
But what if advice seekers are overlooking what they truly need? Psychologists have long known that people stumble on one particular class of problems, self-control problems, because they lack the motivation to transform knowledge into action.
Realizing this, we decided to turn the standard solution to self-control on its head: What if instead of seeking advice, we asked struggling people to give it? Across a series of experiments, we appointed populations struggling with self-control — everything from academic problems to money problems to health problems — to advise others on the very problems they were encountering. Although giving advice confers no new information to the advice giver, we thought it would increase the advice giver’s confidence. Confidence in one’s ability can galvanize motivation and achievement even more than actual ability.
In one study, we recruited a sample of unemployed individuals struggling to find a job. We asked these individuals to give job search advice to their equally deflated peers. Next, all participants read job search tips from The Muse, a professional career advice platform. After giving and receiving advice, 68% of unemployed individuals reported that giving advice made them feel more motivated to search for jobs than receiving advice.
This method proved a powerful motivator in the financial domain as well. Approximately 72% of people struggling to save money found giving advice more motivating than receiving tips from experts at America Saves. Likewise, 77% of adults struggling with anger management found giving anger management advice more motivating than receiving advice from professional psychologists at the American Psychological Association. Finally, 72% of adults struggling to lose weight found giving weight loss advice more motivating than receiving advice from a seasoned nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic.
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Repeatedly failing to achieve one’s goals saps confidence. For a number of reasons, giving advice may restore it. For example, simply being asked to provide advice implies to those advice-givers that they possess, as opposed to lack, the ability in question. Giving advice prompts one to conduct a biased memory search by considering past successful behaviors in order to generate advice for others.
To test whether giving advice would affect behavior over time, we ran a three-week advice intervention in a midwestern middle school. The school’s 318 students were randomly assigned to be advice givers or advice receivers. Advice givers spent 38% more time on their homework than the advice receivers spent over the month following the intervention.
If giving advice motivates behavior among children and adults, in work and personal domains, then why is this activity so rare? When was the last time you told a de-motivated colleague it would be a good idea for her to go and motivate others? When was the last time you appointed an employee who couldn’t stop procrastinating to give time management advice to someone else? Probably never. In our data we find that people overwhelmingly (erroneously) believe that both they and others will be more motivated by receiving advice than giving it. People falsely attribute failures in self-control to lack of knowledge, but lack of confidence — and by extension, motivation — are the true culprits.
There are clear, practical implications for management when it comes to motivation and advice. Employees struggling to maintain motivation at work ought to give advice as much or more than they receive it. For example, if an employee is experiencing a problem at work with time management, our research shows that this employee would benefit from being asked to counsel a colleague on how to help prioritize their tasks and manage their workload.
Our findings suggest a rich, undetected source of motivation lies in our midst. While managers should continue to assist employees with direct mentorship opportunities, they might also benefit from reframing the conversation, asking their reports to give others advice on the very problems they see their employees struggling with. Typically, past studies have not focused on this type of mentorship, but flipping the paradigm from advice seeking to advice giving offers much motivational promise.