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:
- When Others Curry Favor
- When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse.
Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
- Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
- Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying
it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
- Suppressing Dissent: II
- Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can
lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders
who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.
- Behavioral Indicators of Political Risk
- Avoiding dangerous political interactions is easier if you know what to look for. Among the indicators
of possible trouble are the behaviors of the people around you.
- Workplace Politics and Social Exclusion: I
- In the workplace, social exclusion is the practice of systematically excluding someone from activities
in which they would otherwise be invited to participate. When used in workplace politics, it's ruinous
for the person excluded, and expensive to the organization.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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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.