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

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More articles on Workplace Politics:

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When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines to finding your way to a good outcome.
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In workplace politics, some people always seem to be seeking information about others, but they give very little in return. They're pumpers. What can you do to deal with pumpers?
Steve McInnis, the Building Commissioner of the City of North Chicago, IllinoisHow to Stop Being Overworked: II
Although many of us are overloaded as a result of our own choices, some are overloaded by abusive supervisors. If you find yourself in that situation, what can you do?
Handling Q&A after a presentationAnswering Questions You Can't Answer
When someone asks an unanswerable question, many of us respond by asking for clarification. That path can lead to trouble. Responding to a question with a question can seem defensive, or worse. How can you answer a question you can't answer?

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cracking walnuts with a nutcrackerComing February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingAnd on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.

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