How to Stop Giving Unsolicited Advice at Work in 4 Steps

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Advice Trap" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is advice-giving a common habit in the workplace? How can you stop giving unsolicited advice at work?

In The Advice Trap, leadership coach Michael Bungay Stanier argues that when we use advice-driven leadership at work it creates an unproductive work environment and a lack of team confidence. To stop giving unsolicited advice, Stanier offers four steps to break the advice-giving habit.

Read on to learn how to stop giving unsolicited advice, according to Stanier.

Always Giving Unsolicited Advice?

When someone’s dealing with a problem at work, is your first instinct to give them advice? In The Advice Trap, coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier explains that it’s important to learn how to stop giving unsolicited advice because advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions. He encourages you, instead, to adopt a coaching style of leadership. Stanier argues that when you learn to approach difficult conversations with questions instead of suggestions, you’ll unlock the full potential of your team and relieve yourself of unnecessary burdens.

Here’s How to Stop

Stanier offers four steps to stop giving unsolicited advice: Identify your triggers, acknowledge your bad behaviors, weigh the rewards and costs of giving advice, and commit to doing better next time. 

Step 1: Identify Your Triggers

According to Stanier, to stop giving unsolicited advice, the first step in breaking the habit is to figure out what awakens it. In other words, in what situations do you find yourself giving advice the most?

Different people and different situations can set off your urge to give advice—it varies from person to person. Triggers can often be a certain situation or a person that activates one of the beliefs mentioned above—that we, for example, must save the day or provide value.

You can identify your triggers by writing the name of someone in your life and describing the categories that switched on your advice-giving habits. For example, you might find yourself inclined to give advice to someone less experienced than you (person) or when the project is due in a couple of hours (situation).

(Shortform note: Sometimes, it’s not just a person or a situation that provokes your advice-giving habit. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg provides additional categories that can help you identify your triggers. You can also consider your emotional state (you might be more prone to giving advice when you’re tired after a sleepless night), the time of day (if you’re not a morning person, you might find yourself giving advice earlier in the day if you’re trying to end conversations quickly), and the location (you might feel more authoritative and give advice when having conversations in your private office.)

Step 2: Acknowledge Your Bad Behaviors

The next step is to notice what actions accompany your instinct to give advice. In other words, identify what you do when you start giving advice. For example, you might interrupt others as soon as you come up with an idea, dismiss other people’s opinions, or try to control the direction of a conversation.

(Shortform note: In Tiny Habits, the advice-giving habit would be what author BJ Fogg calls a “Downhill Habit”—one that you’re trying to stop doing. Fogg expands upon Stanier’s suggestion of acknowledging your bad advice-giving behaviors, adding that you should try to physically prevent your ability to perform that specific behavior. For instance, try to make your ability to give advice harder by carrying a cup of coffee when you’re listening to someone’s problem. By taking regular sips, you force yourself to remain silent as the other person’s talking.)

Step 3: Be Aware of the Rewards and Costs

To stop the temptations of giving unsolicited advice, Stanier suggests identifying the personal short-term rewards you seek and the long-term costs that follow to remind yourself of the drawbacks of giving too much advice.

For example, in the short term, you might feel productive, valuable, and in control, but Stanier warns that in the long term, your team will suffer from too much advice-driven management because team members won’t gain any insights on how to improve or better handle similar situations in the future. When you’re consciously aware of this trade-off, you can better resist the urge to give advice.

(Shortform note: Why is it important to identify the short-term benefits you’ll enjoy when you learn to stop giving unsolicited advice? In Atomic Habits, James Clear elaborates on why the temporary rewards of bad habits can make those habits so difficult to break. He argues that humans are biologically driven to seek instantaneous gratification, and breaking a habit requires you to sacrifice that temporary reward. To counter this instinct, he recommends that you find small ways to reward your positive habits to help you resist the urge for instant gratification—Stanier’s recommendations to consciously think of the long-term benefits of refraining from advice might be one way to do this.)

Step 4: Envision Your Future Self

In the final step, Stanier writes that you can maintain your motivation for adopting coaching habits by consciously recognizing the positive changes they’ll bring to your life. Committing to better advice habits will help shape you into a more empathetic, thoughtful, and humble leader. You’ll learn to be deliberate in what advice you give, empower others to take problem-solving initiative, and support them in making their own choices.

If you keep these benefits in mind, you’ll find it easier to change your current behavior and adopt a coaching style of leadership.

(Shortform note: In Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz expands upon Stanier’s suggestion by recommending that you visualize the person you want to become and recall past successes as you work towards becoming your future self. He explains that by regularly imagining your future self, you’re reinforcing those traits into your subconscious self-image. Therefore, an additional thing you can practice when committing to your future self is to envision the type of leader you want to become and then model your behavior according to how that leader would respond to others. For instance, vividly imagine yourself not taking responsibility for other people’s choices or practicing active listening during a conversation.)

The Psychology Behind How Habits Form

While Stanier offers suggestions on how to stop giving unsolicited advice, he doesn’t touch on the underlying psychological factors that influence habit-forming. In Atomic Habits, James Clear points out that there are four elements of how a habit forms. By examining how habits form in the brain, we can understand the logic behind Stanier’s suggestions.

Cue: A cue resides at the very root of a habit: It’s a specific thing in the environment that alerts your brain to do something. This cue (say, a stressed coworker) then triggers a craving.

Craving: When Stanier talks about the short-term benefits you seek when you give advice, he’s likely referring to a craving set off by the cue. You start anticipating a rewarding feeling even before you perform any actions. For example: Seeing your coworker stressed sets off your desire to be helpful and save the day.

Response: Clear points out that you perform the response in order to obtain the feeling that you’re craving (feeling valuable or heroic). So, when you’re identifying the bad behaviors you have when giving advice, you’re also identifying the responses you have to your emotional cravings.

Reward: According to Clear, a habit perpetuates because you get the emotional reward for your behavior. You learn to associate the cue with the reward. For example: When you feel good after “saving the day” by giving advice, you see stressed coworkers as opportunities to achieve that feeling again.

Exercise: Identify Your Advice-Giving Belief

Stanier acknowledges that when we give unsolicited advice, we often think we’re being helpful. Think of a time when you gave advice to someone recently and consider Stanier’s three common beliefs that drive the advice-giving habit.

  • Describe the situation in which you gave advice. Were you talking with a coworker, an intern, or perhaps a friend? Was it at your workplace or somewhere else? What was the subject of the conversation?
  • What was the outcome of your advice-giving? Did the problem get resolved? How did it make you feel? (For example, if your advice solved the issue, did you feel smart or capable?)
  • Based on how you felt, which of Stanier’s common advice-driving beliefs might have led you to give that advice? Was it a desire to feel valuable, rescue someone, or take control?
  • What is a new belief that you could focus on instead? (For example, if you want to save others from difficult situations, you could remind yourself to focus on supporting others so that they can overcome their obstacles or to remember that you’re not responsible for solving other people’s problems for them.)
How to Stop Giving Unsolicited Advice at Work in 4 Steps

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Advice Trap summary:

  • Why advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions
  • Why questions are more beneficial than suggestions
  • How to combat your impulse to give unsolicited advice

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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