Good leaders don't give advice - they coach

In 1997, Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article entitled Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young. This article is full of wise insights, is often quoted, and holds an important revelation when developing coaching skills for leaders: Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it is worth.

The impact of giving advice

Whilst a bit of advice is useful on very rare occasions the fact is, we know instinctively that giving advice does not work. Yet it has an allure for most of us and is an almost impossible temptation to resist. Why?

We know that the urge to give advice stops us from listening effectively to the other person as we are too absorbed in our own ‘advisory’ thoughts. We are not listening to the root of their problem and our advice is missing the point.
In ‘advisor’ mode we try to join the dots for them, to think for them, and then we give advice - mostly based on our assumptions and irrelevant personal experience - that is ineffective, frustrating, and prevents them from thinking for themselves. In short: Good leaders don’t give advice – they coach.

'The Advice Trap' – The habit of giving advice

In his excellent new book, The Advice Trap, Michael Stanier looks closely at the habit (trap) of giving advice, why we are so tempted to do it, and how we can begin to change our behaviours to stay curious, listen more, and appreciate the other person as fully capable and responsible in resolving their problems without our help or advice.
Stanier makes the point that there is ‘Easy Change’ – superficial, simple things we can do to make small differences – which he compares to downloading an app on a smartphone - another small addition to solve another small problem. But then we come up against ‘Hard Change’, where the small additions do not seem to work and the phone just gets bunged up with stuff that doesn’t resolve these issues. As Stanier says, this is because what is needed is a new operating system and not more apps (advice). This involves letting go of what has worked for us in the past which frees up space for new ways of doing things more effectively.
Hard change requires us to take a long hard look at what we do and who we are – how we have constructed ourselves from an early age to succeed in the world as we saw it then and how these habits have become ingrained in our day-to-day behaviour.


The three personas of the Advice Monster

Stanier identifies three personas of the Advice Monster: Tell It, Save It and Control It.

  • The ‘Tell It’ persona needs to show up as clever, authoritative and knows best. If Tell It does not step in and save the day, no-one will. Tell Its must have the answer.
  • The ‘Save It’ persona shows up as helpful, trying hard, and likes to be seen as the most responsible person around. If Save It does not rescue everyone, it will all fall apart. Save Its must be responsible for everything.
  • The ‘Control It’ persona likes to hold all the reins, not to share power and to stay in charge. They can be strong and manipulative, If Control It does not stay on top of everything, we will all fail. Control Its must stay in control.

You may identify with one or even more of these three core personas, and you will notice that they all share the same profound belief – that THEY are better than the other person.

Stanier makes the powerful point that these Advice Monster personas completely disempower the other person – when the Advice Monster comes upon us, we see others as less clever, less responsible, less competent, less courageous, and less trustworthy. They are not good enough to get to the answer themselves so we must take up the slack for them. In Stanier’s words: how unsustainable, how unscalable, how exhausting for you and how disempowering for them. How inhuman for you both.

This expresses the true cost and downside of giving advice. To ensure that coaching can achieve business goals leaders must first tame their Advice Monster persona. Once tamed, then we have the power of choice, of when and if to offer advice to others, and almost invariably: the choice will be to not offer advice but to listen and question further.
Taming your advice monster is a skill that needs to be learnt in the early stages of coaching skills development and it quickly becomes apparent that coaches who escape the Advice Trap are far more effective because they hardly ever offer advice and instead create the conditions for the other person to find their own insight and take responsibility for action.

Escaping the advice trap

In The Advice Trap, the author outlines four steps towards taming the Advice Monster in each of us:

  1. Understanding what triggers your Advice Monster persona into action
  2. Becoming aware of the behaviours that show up when your Advice Monster is triggered
  3. Appreciating the short-term pay-off of these behaviours and what are they costing you in the longer term
  4. Getting clear on the long-term benefits of becoming the Future You and embedding new habits

Three specific qualities stand out in the process of becoming the Future You, as Stanier puts it:

  • Empathy - really appreciating what is real for the other person
  • Mindfulness - awareness of the situation that allows responsiveness rather than reactivity
  • Humility - knowing your own voice, appreciating that it is not the only voice and very often will not be the best voice in each situation.

Developing these qualities as a way of being is critical to coaching skills development for leaders. They point to the mindset of the effective leader – curious, vulnerable, and fascinated by other people and their capability to solve their own issues without help or advice from us. These qualities build powerful and engaging relationships which allow for conversations that sparkle with energy, creativity, and insight. This is the coach’s role, and it starts with taming your Advice Monster.

In Steiner’s words:
“You can be known as the person who helps articulate the critical issue or as the person who provides hasty answers to solve the wrong question. Which would you prefer?”

References

Schmich, M. (1997, June 1). Advice, like youth, is probably just wasted on the young. Retrieved from Chicago Tribune: https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/chi-schmich-sunscreen-column-column.html

Stanier, M. B. (2020). The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever. MBS Works.

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