Advice on Advice

To be effective leaders, we all need good advice, and we need to give good advice to others. Problem is, advice sharing is not as easy as it sounds, explain Joshua Margolis and the late David Garvin.
by Dina Gerdeman

In business, good advice is priceless.

Managers who are anxious and confused when confronted with corporate challenges can find that a piece of sound advice from a colleague can instill a sense of calm and clarity that leads to more thoughtful and strategic business decisions. In turn, offering advice to others is considered an important mark of a leader.

“People have a remarkable degree of overconfidence, and that diminishes the amount of advice they typically seek”

Yet business executives aren't always making the most of advice—on both the giving and the receiving end—because they may not realize that it involves skills that can be learned and refined, according to Harvard Business School professors David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis.

Highly skilled advisers pay close attention to how they advise as much as what kind of advice they give, Garvin and Margolis contend in the recent article in Harvard Business Review, The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice, which is based on research and discussions with advice experts.

The advice give-and-take is not always easy to pull off. Both the advice-giver and the receiver are prone to common missteps that can cloud communication and even damage relationships.

But when advice-giving does go well, it is a beautiful thing, says Margolis, the James Dinan and Elizabeth Miller Professor of Business Administration.

"If you've been thinking about a problem in a certain way, and the advice and counsel you get lets you see it in a completely different light, it allows you to see a path through that you didn't see before," he says.

Hesitant To Ask For Help

Some executives are wary of seeking advice at all. For one thing, many people operate under the assumption that they already have all the answers.

Giving and receiving advice are skills that must be
learned and developed.©

"People have a remarkable degree of overconfidence, and that diminishes the amount of advice they typically seek," says Garvin, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration. "But I don't see how a leader can make critical big decisions without getting advice."

Plus, many executives believe that if they seek advice, they will be viewed as incapable of making decisions on their own.

Research shows that people who seek too much advice—those who ask for a wide range of opinions, for example, before making every little decision—are viewed as overly dependent and receive lower performance ratings from their bosses, but then again, people who rarely seek advice receive lower performance ratings as well. The folks in the middle—those who seek advice regularly but not too often—earn the highest scores.

Advice-seekers Make Mistakes

People who seek advice make a variety of mistakes, including:

  • Choosing the wrong advisers, particularly by turning only to those with like-minded ideas, rather than seeking out people who will provide a devil's advocate point of view
  • Defining the problem poorly, either by taking the conversation to unrelated tangents or by omitting key information that might cast the advice-seeker in a poor light
  • Misjudging the quality of the advice they are given

Once advice-seekers have received counsel, perhaps one of the biggest mistakes they make is discounting the wisdom they were given, often because of an egocentric bias that has them naturally favoring their own viewpoints. Sometimes people will ask for advice from others, but their true goal is to seek validation or praise for their own solutions.

Experience shows that people in powerful positions are often most guilty of doing this, in some cases because they actually feel competitive when receiving advice from experts—which may lead them to dismiss the advice those experts are giving.

"Powerful people often say to themselves, 'I have to be in this position for a reason. I trust my opinions implicitly and discount others, especially if they suggest a different direction or approach,'" Garvin says. "They see such advice as a threat to their expertise."

Yet the advice-giver may also play a role in the advice falling flat by failing to clearly outline the reasoning for the advice.

"As an advice-seeker, you're in a dilemma. You know how you got from A to Z, but an adviser says, 'What you should do is X,' and often [doesn't] tell you how [he] got from A to X," Garvin says. "You have two reasoning processes—your own, which is clear and well understood, and the other person's, which is completely opaque. People tend to favor clarity. All too often, they discount advice because they can't get the adviser's reasoning process clear in their minds."

That's why it's important for the advice-giver not only to provide suggestions, but also to clearly lay out how he or she got to the recommended options from where the advice-seeker started.

Mistakes Of Advice-givers

Those who give advice often make several mistakes of their own, such as overstepping invisible boundaries with unsolicited advice that may be seen as intrusive, or by giving advice when they're not qualified to do so.

The first question an advice-giver should ask is: Am I the best person to help?

If someone comes to you for advice and you know you're not able to provide helpful, thoughtful input, it's OK to pass, says Margolis, noting it's better to shy away from giving advice than to give poor advice. Advice-givers often feel so flattered to be sought out that they provide advice about topics they may not be qualified to discuss.

"You want to be helpful. You feel like you're now the expert in the room," he says. "It's hard to sometimes say, 'I don't have the field of vision necessary to help.'"

But if that's the case, perhaps the adviser can recommend speaking with someone else more qualified.

Other advice-giving mistakes include:

  • Communicating the advice poorly
  • Misdiagnosing a problem, either by prematurely believing you see similarities with issues you have faced or by neglecting to ask the kind of probing, relevant questions that will get to the heart of the matter
  • Giving self-centered guidance

According to Garvin, advice-seekers should see a red flag when advice-givers limit themselves to saying, "Here's how I would respond if I were in your shoes."

"They're not thinking about you and your circumstances and limitations; they're thinking [about] how they would act, and their experiences, expertise, and standing may be very different from yours," Garvin says. "When a junior faculty member goes to a senior faculty member who is tenured, and the senior faculty member says, 'If I were in your shoes,' that may be poor advice because the situation facing a nontenured faculty member is very different than that facing a tenured one." For this reason, skilled advisers often add the caveat, "But since I'm not you, here's the way I'm thinking about the problem, and here are some factors you might want to consider."

A key problem for both advice-seekers and -givers is a lack of careful listening.

"What listening requires is suspending judgment," Garvin says. "You have to hear the person out—at length and in depth—before shifting to action or making recommendations."

Garvin says when he is advising someone, he listens for emotion and tone, something that may indicate that a deeper issue underlies the problem; and he also listens for whether the person is leaving certain things unsaid. Sometimes the advice-seeker is leaving out key pieces of information inadvertently or because of discomfort with his contribution to the problem.

"If someone says I have interpersonal issues at work and mentions a lot about peers and supervisors, but nothing about subordinates, there may be something more to the story, " Garvin says. "So I will ask if anything is going on with them. The part that's left out of the story is often the key to understanding it." He adds that is one of the reasons people come to you for advice: They aren't able to see the full picture on their own.

That's why it's important for both the advice-seeker and the advice-giver to ask questions of each other. The advice-seeker needs to get clarifications on the adviser's thinking to determine whether the advice fits the situation, and the advice-giver needs to fully understand the problem—and that might mean teasing out some unflattering facts the advice-seeker may have been shy about revealing.

"One of our very talented advice-givers said you shouldn't presume that the version you heard at the first telling is a completely accurate story," Garvin says.

Plus, the advice-giver needs to remember that the goal is to understand the problem and then convey the advice in a way that can be heard—and often this means talking through the pros and cons of various options with the advice-seeker, rather than zeroing in on one answer too early.

"There's a tendency to forget it's not about you, how smart you are, and how helpful you feel you can be, but it's about being experienced by the advisee as helpful," Margolis says. "The danger is that you immediately jump to a conclusion about the best solution. It's better to see advising as a process where you inquire, listen, and talk through the issue, and once you've got a sense of the problem together, you need to generate some options and explore them. That way you increase the likelihood of producing advice that is actionable and feasible, and in fact helps."

Margolis says he was thrilled to work on the advice project with Garvin since he has turned to his colleague for professional advice and has found him to be especially skilled in providing it.

"I was curious about the method and skill set he had that made his advice so helpful," he says. "In some ways, this was a search to say, does my experience and what David does correspond with what we see other great advisers do?"

Meanwhile, the person Garvin is most likely to turn to for advice is his wife. Why?

"It's precisely because she not only knows me so well, she's willing to tell me what I don't want to hear," he says. "In fact, I've have learned that when I'm most resistant to the advice I'm hearing from her, that's when I need to listen even more closely."

About the Author

Dina Gerdeman is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Arun
    I couldn't have said it better. Leaders should be willing to take advice from colleague who may have a different take on things. I have come across managers who say they believe in an "Open door policy," but on being approached by qualified advice givers,the advice is not entertained.

    • Tony Bishop
    • R&D
    So the best advice I ever received for career advancement came from the Mae West, as relayed by my manager at that time: It's better to be looked over than overlooked. I took that to mean that if you have faith in your abilities (or assets), make sure the people you work with take notice. Wallflowers don't do themselves any favors when it comes to corporate advancement.
    • Zufi Deo
    • Founder,
    Thanks for the article. Its nice to see the collaborative approach being proposed here. I have been using the SECI - knowledge management - framework with my clients for the last 6 years. We accept new knowledge will be generated as part of the process and the emphasis is on applying the new knowledge for the benefit of the business.

    The framework ensures the focus is stays client centric and that advisor brings their knowledge base to the table at the right time. This ensures the crowding out you mention does not occur.

    Look forward to other experiences and thoughts.
    • Eric Budd
    • Improvement Coordinator, Peaker Services, Inc.
    For advice given to be more than noise in the receiver's world, it must be welcomed. An advice-giver's first question should be something along the lines of, "Would you like some advice?" Even if there is an established advice-giving relationship, one should ask if the advice is sought in that moment.
    • Dan. '67
    • Ambassador, Deep Self
    I liked this article and am enjoying where I have evolved to as a result, and being able to get these ideas to some friends. I started with the Arnold Mindellian view of Worthy Allies and Worthy Opponents. The former along side, or behind, which creates choices for me between waiting, or
    inquiring further, as place for where person is ready and able or about to come to something on their own, versus
    perpetuating abandonment, or not practicing Kindness-Zen-
    bliss or Kaizenblitz for dramaticly accelerating development
    and differentiation. So then I assembled something more Navajo, with the above view of the Meta, or other directional such as Narative Reflecting. And then the dive to all the internal processing patterns and resources including unburdening, root cause analysis, etc. And the use of deconstruction or amplification or the introduction of
    developments of the Productivity Revolution, especially
    introducing variation. Thank you.
    I was at a professional relationship conference last weekend and Dan Wile when advancing the action for one partner gets down besides them and utilizes his best progressive communication of what they might want to be conveying, and then checks by saying: 'what have I got right? what have I got wrong?' I will only make a referral to someone who, for example in the case of a therapist, or coach, or consultant, will use something similar to Scott Miller's feedback tools that come out of the work of the Institute of Clinical Excellence.
    Good article.
    A strong organization culture creates a systematic approach on dialogue process between people however the conflict starts when three people meet together "Person Working for System" " Person working for his or her survival" "Person working for his or her existence". ...Best Regards
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    A great in depth research on what each one does regularly but not properly as indicated. Yes, ego is one of the villains leading to dangerous over confidence. Weakness not to listen (we only hear and try to judge in accordance with our faculties which could be limited) and pay heed to what is being told is another cause for concern.
    Very often you have advisors who consider themselves to be " jack of all trades". They advise on matters of which they have limited knowledge, if at all. This has obvious negative effect and leads to lack of credibility.
    There is lot to learn for most of us.
    Wonderful Article. The Author has put the subject in right perspective. Yes , very often we do not take advice under the illusion that we know everything. On the contrary, we never stop giving unsolicited advice not bothering about the consequence.
    • Dirk Anthony
    • Consultant, Dirk Anthony Consulting
    Having developed coaching skills during my career I see it as an important capability for leading todays talent. Now studying behavioural change as part of my coaching journey, this article highlights once again the similarities and differences between mentoring (advice) and coaching. The question is, who owns the advice? The giver or the receiver? In coaching the coachee always owns the solution, completely. Thank you for a stimulating read.
    • Sachi Harold
    • Contributor,
    Insightful article. Leaders who take good advice are open for advancement however one must be careful in determining which advice are good for the business and which are not. An advice can be helpful or destructive whether in business or life in general. This is the reason why having the right confidante or mentor is very important.
    • Pat Minicucci
    • Owner / CEO, Minicucci Coaching & Consulting
    Not that different from coaching and consulting. Great advice thank you!
    • Elias Byamungu
    • CEO, Gomba District, Uganda
    This article is quite insightful and revealing. Seeking advice can also be incremental,from lower levels through to the top in an organizational setting or society generally.
    Consulting victims and the most affected can add value to reforms and solutions. What is necessary is good triangulation and sieving to separate emotions from practical realities.
    • Allan Torng
    • Provincial EPH Advisor, Alberta Health Services
    Excellent article... it said everything that need to be said.

    In my job, I often get enquiries from people who already have a preformed position or stance on a matter, and they are looking for validation of their position/stance. A lot of time is spent to provide the reason and rationale why the 'other' position or stance should be taken.
    • Talha Khurshid Siddiqui
    • Founder & Production Head, Experts Nest
    Receiving and Giving Advice has become an "FOR GRANTED" activity to us.
    We don't think too much when it comes to either RECEIVING or GIVING any ADVICE from n to Anyone.

    Highly recommended to whole HR Fraternity and every single being who has to deal with other beings on a daily basis.