Sunday, July 5, 2015

Are You Good At Giving and Seeking Advice?

In an excellent HBR article entitled ‘the art of giving and receiving advice’ David Garvin and Joshua Margolis highlight how “seeking and giving advice are central to effective leadership and decision making. Yet managers seldom view them as practical skills they can learn and improve. Receiving guidance is often seen as a passive consumption of wisdom. And advising is typically treated as a matter of ‘good judgement’ – where you either have it or you don’t, rather than a competency to be mastered.”
There are many influencing factors that influence our basic desire to seek advice, just as much as they influence how we give advice;
Our upbringing – i.e. were we encouraged to seek advice when we were growing up, or did we ‘learn’ that asking for advice was often seen as a weakness and hence we’ve taught ourselves that it’s better just to ‘keep quite’ and appear smart. This influencing factor has a huge impact not just on how individuals avoid seeking advice, but also significantly impacts how these individuals give advice and their perception of those that ‘seek ‘ advice from them.
Organisational culture influences employees ‘desire’ to both seek and give advice. Some organisations encourage an open and transparent environment where employees are encouraged to seek advice from as many quarters as possible and this is seen as a strength. Also in these cultures ‘leaders’ are keen and available to give advice but not from a position of power and/or telling, but based on the situation – where for example they might counsel; or coach; or mentor depending on the situation and the type of advice being sort.
Age will influence an employee’s desire both to give and seek advice. It wasn’t that long ago – before the advent of social media and the like, that age equated to wisdom. In fact it wasn’t that long ago that age equated to seniority and hence perceived experience – and this is still true in some cultures today. But organisations have learnt that age and historical experience don’t on their own equate to genuine wisdom as business is constantly evolving and changing over short time intervals. So the wisdom resides with those that have learnt to adapt to different business scenarios and who are up-to-date with current business skills.
But because of the above, there will be some who have been in business for a long time who genuinely believe that they know best; and what they don’t know isn’t worth knowing. And then at the other end of the spectrum there will be those who have been in business for a long time who are nervous about seeking advice as they fear that it will be perceived as a weakness rather than a strength – but this links more to culture than age.
As Garvin and Margolis mention “advice seekers and givers must clear significant hurdles, such as deeply ingrained tendency to prefer their own opinions irrespective of their merit, and the fact that careful listening is hard, time-consuming work. The whole interaction is a subtle and intricate art. On both sides it requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, restraint, diplomacy, and patience. The process can derail in many ways, and getting it wrong can have damaging consequences – misunderstanding and frustration, decision gridlock, subpar solutions, frayed relationships, and thwarted personal development – with substantial cost to individuals and their organisation.”
Even then, it is not a ‘black and white’ scenario – some employees may be good at asking for or giving advice in certain situations and not in others; good at giving or receiving advice on certain topics and not on others; etc. Just the daily pressure of work can significantly influence the quality of advice given or received.
Garvin and Margolis remind us that “whether you’re receiving or giving advice, flawed logic and limited information complicate the process. Advice seekers must identify their blind spots, recognize when and how to ask for guidance, draw useful insights from the right people, and overcome and inevitable defensiveness about their own views. Advisors, too, face a myriad of challenges as they try to interpret messy situations and provide guidance on seemingly intractable problems.”
When you’re seeking advice, watch out for these common obstacles;
1) Thinking you already have the answers;
2) Choosing the wrong advisers;
3) Defining the problem poorly;
4) Discounting advice;
5) Misjudging the quality of advice;
And when you’re giving advice, watch out for these common tendencies that can cause problems;
1) Overstepping boundaries;
2) Misdiagnosing the problem;
3) Offering self-centered guidance;
4) Communicating advice poorly;
5) Mishandling the aftermath;
Garvin and Margolis mention that “though seekers and advisors work together to solve problems, they have different vantage points. Recent social psychology research shows that people in an advisory role focus on overarching purpose (why an action should be performed), whereas recipients of advice – who usually face an impending decision – are more concerned with tactics (how to get things done). An individual is likely to think idealistically as an advisor but pragmatically as a seeker, even when confronting the same challenge.”
You’ll often find that those who are best at giving advice are those that regularly seek advice themselves, regardless of their level in the organisation – and that’s what makes them extra special advice givers. They appreciate that asking and giving advice is an art – and they are keen to perfect it.
Garvin and Margolis conclude that “overall our guidelines for both seekers and advisers amount to a fundamental shift in approach. Although people typically focus on the content of advice, those who are most skilled attend just as much to how they advise as to what they advise. It’s a mistake to think of advice as a one-and-done transaction. Skilled advising is more than the dispensing and accepting of wisdom; it’s a creative, collaborative process – a matter of striving, on both sides, to better understand problems and craft promising paths forward. And that often requires an ongoing conversation.”   
The danger is that future generations aren’t being encouraged to ask for advice face-to-face; but are being taught at an early age that they can get advice remotely – without being able to check whether the ‘adviser’ is qualified or whether advice is accurate or not, often until it is much too late. The art of seeking and giving advice needs to be an integral part of the educational curriculum so that ‘we’ can teach future generations the importance of seeking and giving the right advice.
Garvin, D.A. and Margolis, J.D. (2015). The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice. Harvard Business Review. Jan/Feb, p.61-71.