What is the “advice monster?” What’s the problem with advice-giving? How can you tame your advice monster?
According to author Michael Bungay Stanier, advice-giving is a widespread habit that many people find difficult to break—a habit he personifies as your “advice monster.” He claims that subduing the compulsion to give advice (i.e. taming your advice monster) is not an easy change to make.
Read on to learn more about Stanier’s advice monster and how to break advice-giving habits.
Stanier’s Advice Monster
In his book The Advice Trap, Michael Bungay Stanier defines advice as suggestions of what another person should do, and he notes that in the workplace, many situations seem like they can be solved with an advice-driven approach. Such an approach may sound like, “You should try—” or “Have you thought about doing—”. It’s in these situations that Stanier says your “advice monster” has taken over and represents the compulsive habit to give advice.
He argues that advice-giving can create several problems, including unproductive work environments, lack of team confidence, and overburdened managers.
Giving in to our advice monsters can be problematic for two reasons: 1) It can lead to inaccurate solutions and 2) It can generate negative emotions that hinder workplace productivity.
Reason #1: We might think we know what the problem is when, in reality, we’re addressing an irrelevant issue. This can happen when we give advice too quickly before fully understanding the situation. When we lack a clear understanding of a situation, we can only give lackluster suggestions, which get in the way of finding solutions to the actual problem and hold back team productivity and generative thinking.
(Shortform note: The authors of Crucial Accountability echo Stanier’s claim that jumping in with advice without considering the other person’s perspective can get in the way of good solutions. They add that when you propose a solution off the bat, you’re biasing the other person’s thoughts in two ways. First, research has shown that after someone offers a suggestion, people start thinking in a similar direction because it’s at the front of their mind. Second, the authors point out that people might be reluctant to disagree. Therefore, when you focus on something irrelevant, you might also distract others from addressing the main issue.)
Reason #2: The bad advice-giving habits that develop as a result of our advice monsters’ need for control can lead to both receivers and givers feeling demoralized. On one hand, receivers feel less capable and less motivated because the ideas aren’t their own. They may feel the adviser considers them inferior or doesn’t value their opinions and thoughts.
(Shortform note: Receivers of advice may feel this way because they sense advice-givers exhibiting “egocentric discounting,” or the tendency to undervalue the opinions of others. When people feel that their ideas are being disregarded, they may be unenthusiastic about applying the advice and become defensive, resulting in an unpleasant exchange.)
On the other hand, givers feel overwhelmed. When you give advice, you take on more work and can feel frustrated when your responsibilities stack up.
(Shortform note: In recent years, the stresses of a management role have increased as companies have digitized and grown larger. A recent study reports that 68% of managers feel overwhelmed. By adopting a more employee-focused and question-driven management style as suggested by Stanier, managers can prioritize their responsibilities more effectively instead of spending their time giving unhelpful advice.)
Stanier says that instead of giving advice, we should ask questions. By learning to think like a coach, we can keep our advice-giving tendencies on a leash and let our curiosity lead the way, which will result in more productive solutions.
(Shortform note: In Difficult Conversations, the authors agree that you should ask questions with the goal to learn about the other person. However, they point out that our inner voice, or the thoughts that form inside our heads during conversations, can often get in the way of this goal. They acknowledge that if your feelings are too overwhelming and you can’t prioritize curiosity, you should communicate that directly to the other person by saying, “This conversation is important to me and I want to listen to your perspective, but I’m feeling unfocused right now.” That way, you maintain an open and curious approach while recognizing your limitations.)
Understanding the Advice Habit
According to Stanier, taming the advice monster is difficult because advice-giving can feel natural and beneficial in the moment—in many situations, it might feel like the most effective approach, even when it’s not. He presents three common beliefs that fuel the compulsions of our advice monsters:
1) Offering advice gives your advice monster value: You might feel driven to offer advice because you think that’s why you’re here—it’s your job to have the answers.
(Shortform note: From an evolutionary perspective, researchers say that the need to feel valued is a central drive that triggers our survival instincts and is intertwined with our sense of identity. When our status is threatened, our fight-or-flight response is triggered, resulting in us channeling our energies into restoring our value through means such as giving advice.)
2) Your advice monster feels like everything will fall apart if you don’t save the day: When people come to you with an issue, your first instinct is to rescue them. You give advice to save others from their situation.
(Shortform note: Experts suggest that a related reason we may feel tempted to give advice is to increase our interpersonal intimacy—to forge stronger relationships. We might believe that, by giving advice, we can become an influential part of another person’s life. However, instead of increasing familiarity, excessive advice-giving can often achieve the opposite effect and push people away.)
3) Your advice monster believes no one else can be trusted: When your team encounters an obstacle, you leap to offer advice because you don’t feel like you can trust anyone to fix things by themselves. You give advice to control the situation.
(Shortform note: If you find your distrust of a coworker triggers you into giving unhelpful advice, you might be able to resolve your feelings by following the recommendations of Brene Brown in Dare to Lead, in which she recommends that you engage in a productive conversation about it. To have a conversation about trust, Brown suggests you talk about specific behaviors rather than calling someone untrustworthy in general. Rather than say, “I don’t trust you to be the last to look over this project,” you could try, “I’d like to talk about some quality concerns about completed projects.”)
How to Tame the Advice Monster
Now that we’ve examined the three mindsets that fuel the advice monster, Stanier offers four steps to tame it.
What Triggers You?
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).
What Are 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.
What Are the Rewards & Costs?
To combat the temptations of advice-giving, 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.
Try to Imagine 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.
If you keep these benefits in mind, you’ll find it easier to change your current behavior and adopt a coaching style of leadership.
Exercise: Practice Taming Your Advice Monster
Stanier acknowledges that when we give 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 fuel your inner advice monster.
- 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.)
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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