Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 2;   January 11, 2012: On Advice and Responsibility

On Advice and Responsibility

by

Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi

The ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the famous Oracle. Ancient Greek people would visit Pythia, oracle and priestess to Apollo at Delphi, who provided counsel and predictions that were regarded as messages directly from the gods. Oracular statements were sometimes direct, sometimes inscrutable. Browse a collection of statements from the Delphic oracle. Photo taken in April 2005, by and courtesy of Napoleon Vier.

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 justify
about 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?"

But don't take my advice — deciding what to do when someone asks for advice is completely up to you. Go to top Top  Next issue: A Review of Performance Reviews: The Checkoff  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensJBCLqZzBVhSostWner@ChacssgKmBCAgTCwmJhJoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Hiding from the truthThe High Cost of Low Trust: II
Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
Gen. John J. Pershing, Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. Dwight D. EisenhowerWhen You're the Least of the Best: II
Many professions have entry-level roles that combine education with practice. Although these "newbies" have unique opportunities to learn from veterans, the role's relatively low status sometimes conflicts with the self-image of the new practitioner. Comfort in the role makes learning its lessons easier.
Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1846, in a charcoal portrait by artist Eastman JohnsonA Critique of Criticism: II
To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to, and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of inflicting pain?
George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of JournalistsDevious Political Tactics: Mis- and Disinformation
Practitioners of workplace politics intent on gaining unfair advantage sometimes use misinformation, disinformation, and other information-related tactics. Here's a short catalog of techniques to watch for.
Orient quad, photo by George H. Van NormanHow to Deal with Holding Back
When group members voluntarily restrict their contributions to group efforts, group success is threatened and high performance becomes impossible. How can we reduce the incidence of holding back?

See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879, famed abolitionist and ex-slaveComing June 20: Managing Dissent Risk
In group decision making, dissent risk is the risk that dissents about important decisions will be rejected without due consideration. As a result, group decision quality can suffer, and some groups will actually eject dissenters. How can we manage dissent risk? Available here and by RSS on June 20.
Puppies waiting intently for a shot at the treatAnd on June 27: Interrupting Others in Meetings Safely: I
In meetings we sometimes feel the need to interrupt others to offer a view or information, or to suggest adjusting the process. But such interruptions carry risk of offense. How can we interrupt others safely? Available here and by RSS on June 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenwCwAEqfgFCMbbvfrner@ChacfBoExISjsJLxgzMzoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.