Isn’t It Obvious? Why Leaders Get Into Trouble by Giving Advice

I have never forgotten a line from a play that my wife and I attended several years ago. The play, Rocket Man [1] , was clever if not especially memorable. But, the line stuck. In defense of some criticism about the advice he gave, the protagonist says, “There’s nothing more obvious than the solution to someone else’s problem.” Wow! What a concept! If you’ve ever given anyone advice about anything of any significance, you probably understand the risks. We hear all kinds of advice: on the radio, from our friends, from our boss, from our relatives, our spouse, our kids. Everyone seems to know exactly what we should do and have little hesitation in telling you so. Why? Well, isn’t it obvious? So, why not? You should get a 4G iPhone. You should go back to school and finish that degree. You should leave him. You should. You should. You should. You should. (Or, you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t, etc.). If it is so obvious to you, why then, isn’t it obvious to me what I should do? I am the one with the most information about by own problem but no one seems particularly interested in hearing that. They already have their minds made up. It is really easy to give advice if you are not the one who has to live with the consequences.

Some argue that advice is often useful, especially when given by one whose heart is in the right place, someone who has good intentions and may actually know what they are talking about. That is true, of course. But, even under the very best of circumstances, there are latent pitfalls. If the receiver of the advice decides to follow it and gets a poor result, he or she may blame the advice giver. If the outcome is good, the leader will get a share of the credit thus diminishing the potential satisfaction and possible motivation that comes from personal accomplishment of the team member. It is diluted.

There are, of course, many situations in which leaders are expected to give advice. It is a legitimate part of the leadership function to advise when asked to do so if the leader has the appropriate background and experience. New team members often need a little guidance. Internal clients may need some direction on a project. As long as the relationship is on solid ground, the leader offers the advice as a suggestion (not an order), and the advice has been sought out and thoroughly thought out, there is only a small risk. But even under the best of circumstances, advising can sometimes be risky. Any time you give advice you also begin to “own” the problem – at least partly[2] . Every time the leader assumes ownership of the problem, he or she takes away a little bit of the ownership, or sense of responsibility, from the other person. Too much of that and the team member, or client, or colleague, may start to resent you. They may start to be overly dependent on the leader. Effective leaders strive to reduce or eliminate unnecessary dependencies within their organizations. Too much dependency on the leader is unhealthy for any team or organization. Effective teams foster a sense of independence and confidence. Highly productive teams feel empowered to solve problems and get things done. It is the weaker, less potent teams who need to go to their leader for solutions to all of their problems. If you have ever worked in an organization where everyone had to check every little thing with the boss, you know how paralyzing that can be. Excellence becomes impossible.

Leaders often argue about this in leadership training. They assert that they are the leaders precisely because they have more experience, knowledge, or technical skill and it is a fundamental part of their job to give good advice. It is no doubt true that they are in the position because of their past successes and that the powers that be promoted them because of their confidence in their problem solving ability. The senior executives liked the advice you gave your team members and colleagues. They respect you for ileadership training advice giving active listening troublet. Why should you give that up? What is so bad about offering a solution to a problem when you have been through the exact same thing dozens of times and you know what works and what doesn’t work? Sometimes it is O.K. but if it becomes a habit to offer solutions every time a team member comes to you with a problem, the danger is that he or she will learn to depend on you to solve all the problems and not learn to solve them on his or her own. One of the potential benefits of teamwork is that the organization leverages the collective wisdom and creativity of the whole team, the enduring hope of producing synergy. So, if you want to ensure that mediocrity is the summit of your efforts, put someone in charge who gives lots of advice. Sometimes, you need to tolerate a few mistakes. Otherwise, no one learns how to do anything on their own.

So, what is the alternative? If a leader can’t give advice, what is the leader’s job? What happens when team members have problems that are hard to solve? If you are ready for some good advice on not giving advice, stay tuned. Here it comes. When a team member comes with a problem, the leader should:

•    Listen. Listen. Listen. We live in such a “hurry-up” world that it is really easy to race ahead to solutions when we don’t even understand the problem. We are especially vulnerable to this when a problem is unusually frustrating or upsetting. I often ask participants in leadership training, “How many of you have ever solved the wrong problem?” Everyone in class will raise their hand. We finish other people’s sentences. We jump to conclusions. We form inferences and judgments based on too little information. It is easy to forget that when someone else has a problem, the information needed to correctly and thoroughly define the problem exists only in that person’s head. And no matter how smart or insightful we may think we are, no matter how caring or sincere we are, we cannot see into someone else’s head. When the emotional level is high, the other person may not be able to articulate the problem clearly until they have calmed down. They may not see their own problem clearly much less be able to explain it to you. Providing solutions under these conditions is a recipe for disaster.

•    Acknowledge and verify. After listening, test your understanding. Put it into words (AKA, “Active Listening“). Let the other person know that you are truly trying to understand their predicament. Be patient. Give the other person an opportunity to make corrections if your interpretation of their message is inaccurate. Remember, it is their problem. If you can’t even get their concurrence that it is defined properly, there is little hope of solving it effectively.

•    Wait. Let the other person think about solutions. Encourage them to try out some ideas. Don’t jump in and take over.

•    Facilitate. Offer to assist with some problem solving. List options (most of the options should come from the other person). Let them evaluate the options and, above all, let them decide which option is the best one for them. If they choose something that is not O.K. with you or one that may create some problem for you, suggest some mutual problem solving. Keep them involved at every step of the process. Don’t impose your own solutions.

•    Follow up and support. Check with them periodically to see if their solution is working for them. Offer to do some more facilitation or mutual problem solving if needed. Let them know that you remain available as a resource but not as the fount of all knowledge. You are there to help, not to dictate.

•    Make your intentions explicit. Let people know how you want things to be. Talk about it. Let them know that you are willing to help, facilitate, listen, and support but that you want them to accept primary responsibility for problem solving.

If you have done all of these things and the other person still wants your advice, go ahead. You have made the point that you are not going to give advice prematurely, that you expect team members to put some real effort into solving their own problems when possible. If none of that works, then they can still come to you for ideas. That doesn’t mean that your ideas are necessarily any better than theirs but you are part of the team and willing to help in any way that makes sense. Even after you have given advice, be willing to leave the responsibility for accepting it with the team member. Otherwise, you are back to square one. You own the problem. Own too many of them and you fail. Almost all workplaces have become far too complex to function effectively on the knowledge and wisdom of a single individual, no matter how capable that person may be. The combined knowledge and skills of the whole team will almost always perform better than one with a leader who makes all the decisions.

Learning how to lead in this way is more difficult than it appears. Effective leadership training will spend considerable time helping participants master these skills. The fact is that few new managers come to the role with a high level of facilitation skill. These skills must be learned and practiced.

So, this is how you “should” do it. It’s my opinion and it’s very true.

[1] Dietz, Steve. Rocket Man. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.
[2] For a more thorough discussion of “problem ownership” see Dr. Thomas Gordon’s work on leadership:  https://www.gordontraining.com/workplace-programs/leader-effectiveness-training-l-e-t/

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