Why Leaders Should NOT Give Good Advice

When’s the last time you gave someone really good advice only to have the person leave and go do something else? This happens all the time to leaders, managers, coaches, parents, and friends. There’s a problem with advice-giving.

Chinese proverb:  “Ideas are like children.  We love our own the best.”

Why is this true? Our brains are not wired to learn something second hand. We rarely learn from instructions from outside sources. Rather, we learn from making connections in our brains that lead to deep understanding and insights.

While we say we want advice, what we really want is to air our thoughts with a trusted person, then come up with our own solutions.

In David Rock’s book, Quiet Leadership, the author lays out six steps to transforming performance at work. His observation is that managers need to help people to think better in order to create insights and solutions. But our conversations aren’t geared towards helping people think; managers are prone to giving advice and solving things according to their own experiences.

Since no two brains are alike, if you want to truly help people perform better, you need to encourage people to find their own ideas. Given the education and independence of today’s workforce, it’s not a bad idea to manage with coaching questions like Rock proposes.

There are a lot of suggestions in the book for enabling coaching conversations, but I’ll try to summarize some important points here:

  1. Permission: Ask if it’s okay to have a coaching conversation and ask questions.
  2. Set the stage (what the author calls Placement): Give a brief outline of what your conversation goals are.
  3. Ask 6-10 questions about the person’s thinking (not details about the issue). How long have you been thinking about this? How important is this on a scale of 1 to 10?
  4. Listen and clarify, allow the person to process their thoughts.

Instead of going into “why” or “how” the problem or issue happened, the focus is more on the thought process of the person with the goal of getting them to make connections and come up with insights. As the person is processing their thoughts you see facial expressions that illustrate their thinking:

  • Awareness of the dilemma (frustration)
  • Reflection, introspection (thoughtful)
  • Illumination (often an “aha” expression)
  • Motivation to get into action

Next time someone walks into your office and asks for some advice, offer to help them think through their thought processes and see what happens. They might come up with a great insight on their own, and thank you for the good advice!

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