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The Advice Trap

Nothing buoys my ego like giving wise and helpful advice.

But in my line of work, that’s often a precarious move.

For example, not long ago, I was talking with a woman and man, both in their early 30s, contemplating marriage. Meeting with me privately, the woman told me the man was everything she wanted in a partner: He was responsible, kind, smart, funny, and they were super compatible. “The person I’ve been hoping for all my life,” she said.

“But I’m extremely stressed, because I can’t stand his smell. I find myself avoiding physical contact with him. I love him deeply, and I know he feels the same. We have a great time together. What should I do?”

I didn’t have a good answer, so all I could do was empathize, and ask a few (hopefully) helpful questions.

Contrast that with another conversation where I failed to exercise restraint in my response.

The owner of an electrical supply company employing 180 people, brought a dilemma to me. His booming business was due largely to the talent of the top sales person, who brought in almost a third of the company’s annual revenue.

After confiding in me that his hot-shot rainmaker was “a pain in the butt,” creating disharmony in the culture and carrying himself with an air of entitlement, the owner asked me for advice:

“I’ve talked to this individual about his bad behavior, but nothing changes. It’s as if he’s holding me and the company hostage because he’s so successful. Should I keep him employed and put up with his nonsense, or let him go and take the financial hit?”

I had a clean and simple solution to his dilemma: “If you’ve put him on notice, and he’s still disruptive, you’ve got to let him go. Can’t afford to poison the culture.”

It felt great to dispense such all-knowing advice. But was it the best response? Could alternative ways of addressing the toxic high performer turn up the productive heat without breaking off the relationship? And what did I know about whether the business could compensate for such a huge revenue hit, if he departed?

Clearly there was a lot I didn’t know. But the emotional pressure to give an easy answer was simply too great to resist at the time. After all, I was supposed to be the expert, right?

Of course, the expectation to give advice doesn’t just happen in private discussions.

During a presentation to a hundred or so leaders, a hand went up, followed by this question: “My brother borrowed six thousand dollars from me three years ago and hasn’t repaid me. He never brings it up when we get together. What should I say to him?”

Opting for full transparency, I replied, for the whole group to hear, “To answer that question, I would have to have a deeper understanding about you and your brother, and know about the history of your relationship, and how your family deals with sticky issues like this. I can ask you some questions, but I can’t give you a responsible answer based on my limited knowledge.”

You might see this as “punting” or “kicking the can down the road,” but for me, not giving advice is mostly a position of integrity.

When I think I know more than I know, what I say is almost always rash.

Here’s why:

Problems come in two varieties, simple and complex.

Simple problems are those that are easily provable and solvable. Answers to simple questions are based on technical, tactical, or subject matter expertise:

“How do you know when a vehicle tire needs more air?”

“What’s the best way to claim charitable giving on a tax return?”

“How do I download that new software program?”

Simple questions, calling for straightforward answers. If you know the answer, have at it.

But don’t confuse simple problems with complex ones. Don’t think that just because you are technically brilliant, or well-educated in one subject, you also have answers to sticky leadership or relationship dilemmas.

Decisions such as mate selection, complicated negotiation, or handling a sensitive relationship problem require humility, and grace. They sometimes call for meandering and exploring. There are lots of variables to consider, numerous possible responses, and exceptions to every rule or formula.

Like I did with the problem of the disruptive high performer, it’s easy to give simplistic answers to complicated situations, without taking sufficient factors into account.

As advisors, leaders, parents, and other authority figures, sometimes we say too little, or too much, and sometimes we just get it all wrong. Because of our positions of influence, we are exceptionally vulnerable to the advice trap.

There’s a time for asserting know-how, and there’s a time for not knowing. Being able to tell the difference reveals a leader’s wisdom.


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