management style

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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What is The Advice Trap about? Why does Michael Bungay Stanier say giving advice isn’t the best form of leadership?

In The Advice Trap, coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier explains that advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions. He encourages you, instead, to adopt a coaching style of leadership and learn to approach difficult conversations with questions instead of suggestions.

Read on for a brief overview of The Advice Trap by Michael Bungay Stanier.

The Advice Trap Book Overview

In The Advice Trap, leadership coach Michael Bungay Stanier argues that managers should refrain from giving advice when they’re called on to help solve problems, and instead should approach problems with a question-driven management style. By adopting this style of leadership—a coaching style—you can improve your performance as well as that of your team and your organization.

Stanier is one of the foremost experts in coaching and the founder of Box of Crayons, a company dedicated to leadership training and development. Published in 2020, The Advice Trap is considered a companion to his previous bestselling book, The Coaching Habit.

The Problem With Advice-Giving

In The Advice Trap, 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—”.

However, he argues that advice-giving can create several problems, including unproductive work environments, lack of team confidence, and overburdened managers.

Advice-giving can be problematic for two reasons: 1) It can lead to inaccurate solutions and 2) It can generate negative emotions that hinder workplace productivity:

  • We might think we know what the problem is when, in reality, we’re addressing an irrelevant issue.
  • Bad advice-giving habits can lead to both receivers and givers feeling demoralized.

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.

Understanding the Advice Habit

According to The Advice Trap, breaking the advice habit 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 drive compulsive advice-giving:

1) Offering advice gives you 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) 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. 

How to Break the Advice Habit

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

Identify Your Triggers

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.

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.

Be Aware of the Rewards and 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.

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.

Think Like a Coach

Now that we’ve learned the drawbacks of wielding advice, what habits should we develop instead? In The Advice Trap, Stanier says the key to thinking like a coach is to shift our focus away from ourselves and onto others. 

To be a good coach, you should:

  1. Be supportive 
  2. Ask questions
  3. Focus on the main challenge

Below, we’ll go into further detail about Stanier explains question-driven coaching.

The Importance of Asking Questions

Stanier identifies being curious as a coach’s defining trait—to pause, take a back seat, and ask questions, as opposed to jumping to give advice. Once you help others lower their defenses, you can have an open and productive discussion led by questions instead of commands. Asking questions helps you remain focused and your team members feel supported.

Stanier offers several tips on how to effectively ask questions:

Just start asking. Don’t waste time introducing or justifying your question, just ask the question to get the conversation started. However, only ask one at a time.

(Shortform note: Experts agree with Stanier’s recommendation of asking a single question at a time, reasoning that asking too many questions at once can make a conversation feel like an interrogation. Even if you’re just trying to understand the situation, firing off multiple questions before waiting for an answer can overwhelm the other person, preventing them from giving deep and thoughtful answers.)

Ask “What” questions. Asking questions like “What methods have you used?” sound more open and non-accusatory compared to “why” questions that might put people on the defensive like “Why did you do it like that?” Avoid rhetorical questions like “Have you thought about—,” which are only advice in disguise.

Embrace silences. Don’t try to fill every break in the conversation. If you pause and actively listen to their answers, you can understand the situation better.

Validate their answers. Help others feel heard and understood with phrases like “That makes sense,” or “I see how that can feel frustrating.”

Turning Habits Into Lifestyle

In The Advice Trap, Stanier encourages you to make coaching a part of your lifestyle—whether you’re communicating in a face-to-face meeting or chatting informally over text message.

According to Stanier, a good coach is generous in both their silence and their words. When you’re not speaking, he suggests you embrace long pauses as opportunities to practice active listening. When you are speaking, try to express your thoughts and feelings more, especially when giving out praise.

The Advice Trap by Michael Stanier: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Bungay Stanier's "The Advice Trap" at Shortform.

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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