The story of giving advice

I’ve written before about the pitfalls of giving advice. There are times, though, in which a situation warrants giving advice. So how do you do it without causing a problem?

Controlling advice

In a past life, I was managing a large program. It was challenging, and I had a rather large team reporting to me.

When my team came to me with issues, I thought it was my job to evaluate the problem and make a decision. In other words, it seemed I was in the business of giving advice all day. It was early in my leadership career, and I thought I was doing the right thing.

Unfortunately, my team developed a dependency on me due to my bias to make decisions. The more I made the decisions, the less they would take responsibility for a decision themselves.

After a few months of this approach, the program was not going well. It seemed as if all I did was to address problems all day long. I was so busy running around trying to fix things that I didn’t have time to plan.

Why wouldn’t my team take ownership for problems?

Leaders give advice.

When you give someone advice, it’s important to come at it with the right mindset. If your goal is to evaluate a situation and provide the team with advice, then there’s a good chance they will comply with your advice.

The problem is, the other person is unlikely to take ownership of the outcome. Given the advice came from you, guess who will be assigned the blame when the advice doesn’t offer a magical fix?

The key to giving advice is to do it in a way that the other person takes ownership of their decisions. Let them choose whether or not they will follow your advice. It’s not that difficult, and the good news is you have total control over it happening this way. You only need to use the right mindset yourself.

So, yes leaders do give advice. The question is, would you want people complying and blaming you? Or, would you like for people to take ownership and grow as a result?

Given leaders create the conditions for others to succeed, I think the answer to this is obvious.

The question is how?

Name it and ask permission

To start, I always name the fact I’m about to give advice. It usually goes something like “I have some experience with this which might be helpful.” Keep it simple, and be sure to call it what it is.

Then, I follow naming it with asking permission. In other words, I want to know if the person wants the advice I’m about to give. Again, keep it simple with something like “would you like to hear it?”

If they say “no,” then I do not force my advice on them. I will, however, follow the “no” with a powerful question to keep exploring the issue.

telling them a story

I often talk about one approach to giving advice which is to provide three options, each followed by a powerful Question. Then at the end to say something like “ok forget what I said, what are you going to do?”

I was reading the book “The Story Factor” by Annette Simmons. This book made me realize that story is another equally powerful way to give advice.

For example, I work with corporate leaders charged with delivering projects. If you do any amount of project work, you know how often things will fall off the rails.

I am often asked me for advice on how to deliver bad news upwards in an organization. People often believe the leaders higher in their organization don’t want bad news, and only want to hear how things are going so good.

It’s tempting and seemingly easy to give advice that they really should tell the truth. That if the other person is being responsible, they will tell the truth about what’s happening on their project.

While it’s hard to argue with those statements they do amount to putting the other person into a mindset of obligation. I even use a potential shaming tactic to push them there (i.e. “if you’re responsible”).

tell them a story

Why not let them figure it out? Perhaps it’s a story such as this:

There was a team I worked with who failed to be transparent about the actual status of their project. They hid the real problems, believing their management group only wanted to hear good news.

This was done with the best intentions. The team believed they needed to resolve the problems themselves.

Individually, none of the problems the team encountered was insurmountable. However, the accumulation of so many unresolved issues meant, in the end, the project failed to deliver any usable product which took their leaders by surprise.

The real difference in using the story is you are not giving any advice. Sure, you could argue I’m leading with the story. However, the human mind would not make the same type of connection.

I’m not going to share my conclusions about the story as I want you to figure out your own. So, instead of telling you what to conclude, I would even ask you to tell me what the real lesson is.

I believe you might be more likely to draw your right conclusions given you’re going to apply your own filters to them (rather than mine).

Advice in leadership

As a leader, your job is to create the conditions for others to succeed. The best place to start doing this is in your actions.

When faced with giving advice, I start by asking myself what the team needs from me. Does the team need a leader who helps them solve problems themselves, or do they need a leader who is taking charge?

For example, if someone has a heart attack, I am going to be fairly direct in what you need to do. If a production system is down, it is not likely the time to give the team space to figure things out on their own (assuming they don’t already have the expertise).

There are times where it makes sense to give advice and be directive. The real growth & learning opportunity happens after the crisis is behind us.

For most circumstances, though, your team wants you to help them succeed & grow. So, why not give advice in a way that gives them the opportunity to own and grow as a result?

What are you going to do?

The ironic thing is when I post you could argue I’m giving you advice.

Thankfully, you are always at choice.

So, forget everything I’ve said. what are you going to do?