This is a hard topic. It is way too frequent that I am asked for advice and then I realise that what I am being really asked for is to agree to the pre-set opinion of who asked for advice. Advice seekers must identify their blind spots, recognise when and how to ask for guidance, draw useful insights from the right people and most of all overcome an inevitable defensiveness about their own views. As a business consultant it is already rather challenging to interpret messy situations and provide guidance on seemingly intractable problems. The least one needs is further obstacles.
So my appeal to business leaders is that when you’re seeking advice, please watch out for these obstacles.
- Thinking you already have the answers: As people are deciding whether they need help, they often have difficulty assessing their own competence and place too much faith in their intuition. The result is overconfidence and a tendency to default to solo decision making on the basis of prior knowledge and assumptions. A related tendency is to ask for advice when one’s real goal is to gain validation or praise. People do this when they strongly believe they’ve solved the problem but still want to “check the box” with someone else.
- No shortcuts: Many times I am faced by business leaders who want to solve issues dragging them down but then dread the time and effort it would take to solve them. This is a dangerous game to play—they risk alienating their advisers when it becomes evident (and it will) that they’re requesting guidance just for show and nothing else.
- Choosing the wrong advisers: Many times business leaders or advice seekers are more receptive to guidance from friends or other likable people. Though friendship, accessibility and nonthreatening personalities all impart high levels of comfort and trust, they have no relation to the quality or thoughtfulness of the advice. Make sure that you are getting your advice from persons that have the ability and true experience to give you the business advice you really need.
- Defining the problem poorly: I sometimes find it difficult to reach a true understanding of the problem at hand. Sometimes this is due to imprecise or ineffective communication. A typical common example of ineffective communication is when I get a lengthy, blow-by-blow story that drives me to lose focus and likely to have me misidentify the core of the problem that needs solving. Worse still, the person speaking to me omits details that reflect badly on him/her but are central to seeing the big picture. Sometimes business leaders also take for granted background essentials, like past incidents or internal politics, that a business consultant like myself would not be aware of.
- Discounting advice: A common mistake I see is that once business leader have advice in hand, their use their energies to undervalue or dismiss it. This happens because of the so called “egocentric bias” where even in situations where business leaders lack expertise, they put more weight on their own opinions than in others’ views. Moreover it is much easier for business leaders to understand their own logic but may be unaware of their advisers’ reasoning. A common occurrence is that business leaders become so anchored in their preformed judgments that they can’t adjust their thinking when they receive feedback to the contrary. Over time, discounting advice will lead to advisers noticing that they’re repeatedly not being heard which in turn generates mistrust.
- Misjudging the quality of advice: Most business leaders who accept advice have trouble distinguishing the good from the bad. Research shows that they value advice more if it comes from a confident source, even though confidence doesn’t signal validity. Conversely, seekers tend to assume that advice is off-base when it veers from the norm or comes from people with whom they’ve had frequent discord.
Overall, I advocate business leaders to think about a fundamental shift in their approach. Business leaders typically focus on the content of advice. I would like to “challenge” business leaders to stop thinking of advice as a one-and-done transaction. Skilled advising is more than the dispensing of wisdom; it’s a creative, collaborative process—a matter of striving to better understand problems and craft promising paths forward. That requires an ongoing conversation