Why Giving Advice Hurts Your Ability to Influence People on Campus – And What to Do Instead

What’s wrong with giving advice?

Over the years, you have developed valuable expertise and skills. When you see someone struggling on campus, you want to tell them what to do because you believe you have the answers they need. You tell them what they should do and then what happens? In most cases, they do not follow your advice. Why?

Unsolicited advice is nothing but judgement and attempt to control others.

Even if you think you are being selfless and generous, when you give advice, it is to satisfy something within yourself.

Perhaps you want to feel important and influential. Or maybe you sincerely want to help someone, but your desire comes from your own judgment that someone else is wrong.

How is unsolicited advice received?

Advice is only effective when it is welcome. If someone didn’t ask for your opinion and you give it anyway, it may not be well received. Unsolicited advice tends to rub people the wrong way. Here is why:

- Unsolicited advice tells people they are wrong, or they did something wrong, or you expect them to do something wrong. It sounds like criticism and doesn’t feel good. Nobody likes to feel scrutinized and judged.

- If the person doesn’t think there is a problem, unsolicited advice won’t make a difference. It will only damage the professional relationship with the one judging.

- A pattern of giving unsolicited advice can make the person receiving it lose their self-confidence because they may doubt themselves and fear being judged. The advice-giver may gain a reputation of being impossible to satisfy and very hard to work with, which will discourage initiative and collaboration.

- Timing is essential. Giving advice to someone who isn’t ready to hear it and learn from it, will do more harm than good. Sometimes people need to have their own experience to learn and grow. Giving them insights without context or personal experience will not be helpful to them.

- People tend to give advice before they listen to what the person with the problem has already tried. The advice-giver often states the obvious which frustrates the other person even more. At that point, the person with the problem can either explain what happened and justify their choices, which can be draining, or smile politely and hope Mr. or Mrs. Know-it-all will go away quickly.

- In many occasions, the person with the problem knows what they “should” do but something is holding them back. It can be lack of confidence, sense of powerlessness, fear of upsetting someone, procrastination, poor organization, or any other reasons. Being reminded of the problem without being shown how to overcome obstacles is painful.  

- When we make a judgement about one isolated fact, we don’t know the person’s background and circumstances. We are likely to point out something that triggers old memories. The person may not only feel the pain from today’s problem, but also reactivate the pain of dozens or hundreds of similar experiences from the past. When someone gets defensive or over-reacts, you know you hit a nerve.

- Last but not least: the advice-giver is often wrong. The judgment is created from the person’s limited perspective, past experiences, personal beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses, and it may be completely misguided. What is appropriate for one person isn’t necessarily appropriate for another.

I could write five pages on why unsolicited advice isn’t effective, but you get my point: only give advice when it is welcome.

Note: I am talking about advice, not directions to your staff about the work you expect them to do. As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to make expectations clear. Sharing your vision for a project or giving feedback isn’t giving advice. That’s an entirely different topic.

What to do instead

Let’s imagine that you want to guide someone to solve a problem in a new way. Let’s call our hypothetical person Steve. You now understand that if you lecture Steve and tell him what he is doing wrong and what he should do, you most likely won’t get his full participation and best effort. Try something different:

1. You observe a situation and based on your experience and expertise, you already know that Steve needs to be proactive and prevent a problem from happening, or solve one that has already occurred.

2. Instead of warning him and giving him something to worry about, show him an opportunity. Frame the situation in an empowering way.

3. Don’t tell; ask! Ask him what he wants to see happen. Let him describe what outcomes he wants to create. Once he is focused on the “desired vision” instead of the “doom and gloom current reality”, ask him what he can do to make his vision reality. Guide him to find solutions (but don’t tell him what to do).

4. By asking strategic questions, you can lead Steve to the answer. It may seem laborious at first but please understand that if you let someone create their own strategy, they will be much more likely to follow-through.

5. Make sure to end the meeting with clear actions steps (who will do what) and a timeline (when). Stay engaged and keep the person accountable.

Yes, it really is that simple! But it takes practice and feedback to master the process. Before you try it, let me give you a few words of caution.

- Only ask open ended questions. Yes/no answers won’t engage the person and won’t help him or her develop problem solving skills. If the person can say yes or no to your question, you have said too much. Your question has the same effect as a statement. Your goal is to make someone think new thoughts, not agree (or disagree) with yours.  

- A prerequisite to succeed with this approach is to accept the possibility of being wrong and to be open to be surprised. You have to let go of your desire to control outcomes because by being open-minded, you can facilitate the emergence of a solution more powerful than your original idea.

- By asking questions you guide this inquiry process therefore; you need to know where you are leading the other person. For example, if you ask someone what they want to see happen but instead of describing what they want (e.g. effective collaboration) they keep dwelling on what they don’t want (e.g. conflict and complaints) you have to tactfully redirect their focus. The inquiry process should lift them up, not let them spiral down.

- When I say “What do you want to see happen?” and “What can you do to make it happen”, I am merely showing you the general approach but I recommend you create questions that are much more specific to the issue you want to solve.

Why it is worth your time and effort

With this approach, you no longer make people feel wrong or not good enough. You help build them up. They develop new problem solving skills, greater awareness about the situation, a sense of empowerment and purpose, and you help them become leaders. They, in turn, can do more for others and the impact of your work spreads beyond what you can see.

In your immediate environment, it reduces negativity, complaining, and other toxic behaviors that often spread in the workplace. It raises the bar regarding goals and expectations while setting people up for success. It creates a culture of strategic thinking and planning instead of passivity or reaction.

Last but not least, it encourages people to trust you, feel safe speaking with you, and take initiative without being afraid of making a mistake. It builds loyalty and collaboration.

When you invest in people, they are more likely to do their best at their job and want to follow your vision because they love being part of your team.

If you would like to speak with me about how to gain more influence (and improve interpersonal relationships) by mastering this approach or many others I developed for higher education administrators, click here to make an appointment for a free consultation. I look forward to connecting with you and making your job easier and more fulfilling.  

About the author: Since 2010 Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, online courses, and interviews on international telesummits. Audrey is the go-to Success Coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.