You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. you can tell whether a man is wise by his questions. -Naguib Mahfouz
Michael Bungay Stanier says you have an advice problem. I have one, too. Bungay Stanier is the author of The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever, a book (he is well aware of the irony) full of advice on how to stop giving advice.
He’s written extensively about coaching and how thinking like a coach can make you a better leader. In his bestseller The Coaching Habit, he says “by saying less and asking more, you can work less hard and have more impact. Building a coaching habit is about staying curious a little longer and rushing to advice-giving a little more slowly.”
Here’s why Bungay Stanier says your advice habit (he calls it your Advice Monster) isn’t good for you or the people you’re giving advice to.
First, your advice doesn’t work. Oh, you’ve gotten lucky a few times; maybe even many times. But Bungay Stanier says that most of the time, you’re giving advice too fast. You are probably advising your team on the wrong problem. You pull the trigger too fast, he writes, and “because we’re all twitchy-keen to help and primed to get into action, we love to jump in and solve the first thing that shows up—even when it’s not the actual thing that needs to be figured out.”
It takes time – and lots of good questions – to get to the real issue. If your team goes off to implement your advice (no matter how good it is) they may waste time and resources working on the wrong problem. Even if it’s the right problem, chances are your first shot at advice isn’t your best work. I’ve seen people jump up to get started on the first idea that seemed fairly plausible and not completely crazy. That’s not a recipe for successful outcomes.
Bungay Stanier says there’s a reason your first advice probably sucks: “To start with, you don’t have the full picture. You’ve got a few facts, a delightful collection of baggage, a robust serving of opinion, and an ocean of assumption.” More questions, more listening is in order if you want to really understand what’s happening.
Second, your advice makes your team (or spouse or kids or mentee) dumber. You don’t mean to discourage them from thinking, but giving advice does just that. Bungay Stanier writes “Being told what to do—even with the best of intentions—signals that the advice-receiver is not really here for their ability to think, but only for their ability to implement someone else’s ideas.” Eventually, they become less and less likely to think for themselves, and more likely just to ask someone else what to do. The long-term results include less engagement, less empowerment, and less thinking overall.
Third, your advice habit is burning you out. “Your willingness to default to advice-giving means you’re adding unnecessary work and responsibility to your already plenty-busy life. Not only are you doing your own job, you’re doing other people’s jobs for them as well.” If you’re doing other people’s work for them, you don’t have enough time to do the work that really matters to you.
In future posts, I’ll explore ideas on how to tame your Advice Monster.