Stop Rushing In With Advice

Why your words of wisdom probably aren’t worth very much.

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Image courtesy of Keith Negley/theispot.com

There’s a time and place for advice. But when giving it is your default response to colleagues and friends who face difficult situations (and for most of us, that’s the case), it becomes a problem.

It’s an insidious habit — one you’ve been encouraged to adopt all your life. From your early days in school, through exams in college, and into your career, it’s always been about having the answer. And biology is colluding with societal influence. When you give advice, your brain gets a dose of feel-good chemicals. You feel smart and accomplished, poised and helpful. The buzz is intoxicating. No wonder you’re giving advice all the time.

But most of it is not useful or effective. Here’s why.

1. You’re solving the wrong challenge. More often than not, you’re offering solutions (brilliant or not) to the wrong problem. You’ve been suckered into believing that the first challenge mentioned is the real issue. It rarely is. But because we’re all twitchy-keen to help and “add value,” you jump in and solve the first thing that shows up.

2. You’re proposing a mediocre solution. Let’s say you sidestepped that first mistake and took a little time to identify the real problem. Unfortunately, you’re still likely to make suggestions that are not as good as you think they are. There are reasons for that. To start with, you don’t have the full picture. You have a few facts, a delightful collection of baggage, a robust serving of opinion, and an ocean of assumption. Your brain is designed to find patterns and make connections that reassure you that you know what’s going on. (Chances are, you don’t.) Add to that your own self-serving bias, which is what behavioral scientists call it when you’re over-inclined to believe your ideas are excellent, and the nuggets of gold keep coming.

3. You’re displaying poor leadership. Even if you avoid the first two mistakes, you’ll reach a crossroads: Do you supply an answer that’s fast and right? Or give someone else who’s less experienced or less senior the room to figure things out? Down one path: speed and a confirmation of your status within the group. Down the other: an act of empowerment — and with it, an increase in confidence, competence, and autonomy.

Sadly, most of us choose the first path. We’ve been conditioned to do so. But problem-solving becomes much more interesting and effective when we stay curious and know when to step out of the way.

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