Sometimes, when people seek advice, they actually want something else. It can be almost anything — someone to listen, someone to show concern, someone to test the seeker's ideas. And sometimes, there is peril for the adviser, because instead of an adviser, the seeker wants someone to take responsibility for the seeker's own decision.
Here's a typical scenario. Let's call the seeker Sam and the supposed "adviser" Amy. Sam describes the situation, and Amy takes in what Sam says. But as with all communications, what Sam says isn't necessarily accurate or complete. It might be abbreviated, or it might be slanted (intentionally or not), or it might be very seriously distorted. And what Amy receives and how she interprets it might not match exactly what Sam sent. Next, Amy conjures up some advice that might or might not fit the situation. And Sam receives it, interpreting it imperfectly.
The chances of this process working well are good, if both Sam and Amy are open and honest with each other and themselves, and if they both devote the needed time and energy.
In most cases, sadly, the necessary honesty, openness, and devotion are not supplied. Most advice, especially that given en route to somewhere or in the midst of other things, isn't likely to work. And when it doesn't work, the advice-seeker sometimes charges the advice-giver with having given bad advice.
When the seeker isn't able or willing to devote time, energy, and honesty to the advice process, what can you do? Declining directly to give advice, or deferring with I-can't-right-now-but-call-me-later, can lead to trouble in the relationship. Here are four possible alternatives.
- Be neutral
- When your knowledge of the situation is incomplete, taking any position at all can be difficult to justify. Give a response of the form on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand, taking no position.
- Encourage the seeker to self-solve
- Make the seeker's own responsibility clear. For instance: "It's hard to say, because I know I'm not in your shoes, but tell me what you would do if X happened?"
- Tell a story
- Tell a story When your knowledge of the
situation is incomplete, taking
any position at all can be
difficult to justifyabout your own experience, emphasizing that it's only about your own experience: "I have no idea if this will work for you, but here's what happened to me one time."
- Give a reference to a more likely expert
- When you have no special expertise about the issue, make that clear: "I'm not really a good one to ask about that, but have you talked to Michael?"
If the relationship can support it, directly declining to advise is probably best: "I wonder, is it possible that you're really looking for someone else to take responsibility for what is, after all, your decision?"
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
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- We hear a lot about best practices, but hardly anybody talks about worst practices. So as a public service,
here are some of the best worst practices.
- The Attributes of Political Opportunity: The Finer Points
- Opportunities come along even in tough times. But in tough times like these, it's especially important
to sniff out true opportunities and avoid high-risk adventures. Here are some of the finer points to
assist you in your detective work.
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: III
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you doesn't comply
with policies you rightfully established, trouble looms. What role do supervisors play?
- How to Create Distrust
- A trusting environment is critical to high performance. That's why it's important to recognize behaviors
that erode trust in others. Here's a little catalog of methods people use — intentionally or not
— to create distrust.
- Anticipate Counter-Communication
- Effective communication enables two parties to collaborate. Counter-communication is information provided
by a third party that contradicts the basis of agreements or undermines that collaboration.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.