Taming Your Advice Monster

Guest Post by Ned Mervich

Somehow, at an early age, I developed the belief that a leader was a person who had all the answers. This belief served as the backdrop of my leadership experience for the first two thirds of my life. As a result, I spent way too much time questioning whether or not I was a leader because I often felt like I didn’t all have the answers. In addition, I lived with the constant fear that others would see I didn’t know the answers and join me in the realization that I really wasn’t a leader.

Couple this belief with the strong suspicion that in most cases I knew what was best for other people, and I found myself consistently living in the grip of what author and executive coach Michael Bungay Stanier calls “the Advice Monster,” in his excellent book, The Advice Trap. The Advice Monster is the small voice inside your head that tells you the only way you add value to your organization is by having all the answers. Or it tells you you’re the most responsible person in the organization and you have to hold everything together or else chaos will ensue.

The desire to give advice is strong in most of us. I suspect that it might be a product of the fall as recorded in Genesis 3. The ultimate sin in the Garden was pride: Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God what they should do. As a result of their rebellion, I think all of us are born with the propensity to think our way is better, which leads us to want to tell people what to do. And on the flip side, we are also born with the propensity to not want to take advice from others.

Do you see the dilemma that has created? We want to tell other people what to do, but, in most cases, they don’t want to be told, which is why giving advice often doesn’t work.

Stanier identifies three other major problems with advice giving:

  1. We often end up solving the wrong problem because we rush to give an answer without understanding the real issue.
  2. Our advice is never as good as we think it is because if fits our life situation but not theirs.
  3. When we give advice we send the message that the other person can’t figure it out themselves.

When giving advice is our default response as a leader, what we are really saying is, “I’m better than you.” By that statement we mean we’re “faster or smarter or more experience or more senior or more certain or louder or more creative or more strategic or more right,” as Stanier puts it. If that’s not bad enough, we’re also saying that we believer the other person isn’t smart enough to solve their own problems. I don’t know about you, but that’s not an attitude I find very attractive in a leader nor does it line up with how I think Jesus viewed people or leadership.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for the Advice Monster. But we can go a long way toward taming it. The first place to start is to grow your curiosity. The best way to do that is to get better at asking questions. Stanier explains that “questions are the kindling of curiosity.” When you ask questions that are designed to not simply gain information but to help others explore the challenges they face and their options for action, you empower them to grow as a person and as a leader.

One habit I’m developing to stay curious longer is to always ask at least two questions whenever someone wants my opinion. Several questions I use in these situations come from Stanier’s early book, The Coaching Habit. Once the person has explained their situation, I’ll ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” The second question is, “What do you want/need from me?” The third question can be used at any point in the conversation because it’s designed to encourage the other person to keep thinking. Stanier calls it the AWE question because it simply asks,

And What Else?”

One of the best responses for avoiding the advice-giving mode when someone asks us a question comes from sales expert Keith Rosen. He suggests we say,

“I’d be happy to share my opinion with you. However, you’re much closer to this situation than I am and I trust you and your judgment on this. So, what’s your opinion on how to move forward or resolve this?”

Rosen then encourages the use of questions to help them flesh out their suggestions to see if they really would accomplish what they’re hoping for.

When we respond to someone who asks for our opinion or input with questions, it invites them to be engaged in both the identification and the solving of the challenge which will allow us to step out of the role of Chief Problem Solver. Abdicating from this role may be hard on our ego (remember, I thought a leader had all the answers), but it helps prevent us from becoming a bottleneck in the organization and from becoming overwhelmed with trying to do not only our job but everyone else’s as well.

All of this is not to say that a leader should never give advice. There will be plenty of times when leaders will need to tell people what to do. What I’m encouraging is to not allow advice giving to be our default response to every situation.

You may have heard the old saying, “Curiosity killed the cat.” While curiosity may be fatal to felines, for leaders it’s the wellspring of leading with questions. Once you learn to tame your Advice Monster, you will watch as those you lead experience the freedom to discover the real challenge they are facing, own the solutions they generate, and overcome the challenges they are facing.

Ned Mervich

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ned Mervich is a native Californian who moved to Texas in 2022 with his wife Marcia to be closer to their two daughters and eight grandkids. He spent 29 years with Cru in the collegiate ministry mostly in the west and then 17 years as a small groups pastor at North Coast Church near San Diego, CA.  Ned began his coach training in 2013 and earned a Doctor of Ministry in Life and Leadership Coaching from Western Seminary in 2022.  He enjoys reading and playing pickleball 3-4 times a week.  If you are looking for a coach Ned would be delighted to visit with you – simply email Ned at nedmervich@outlook.com

 

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