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  • Tamar Balkin

Is It Ever Ok To Give Unsolicited Advice?

"It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take"

Ironic by Alanis Morissette (click here for the song)

Earlier this week a client began a session a bit exasperated he said to me “My colleague keeps telling me how to do my job, I know she is well meaning but ‘she drives me crazy’… I am really worried I will explode feel and blurt out ‘Just Don’t tell me what to say and don’t tell me what to do’”. (I don’t think she intentionally quoted lines from two songs in my blog playlist She Drives me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals, and You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore)

When people give unsolicited advice they presume, that their authority will be accepted by the advisee. However, researchers have found that typically people don’t follow unsolicited advice. In other words, most adults would rather make a mistake and suffer the consequence than comply like a dutiful child in response to advice, even if the advice would actually lead to a better result.

Why do people do it?

Researchers have found that in the workplace, sometimes advice giving is a politically motivated and subtle pathway to power. Individuals who desire power want to see that they can control the behaviours and experiences of others, thus giving advice is as a subtle route to this sense of power. This sense of power emerges regardless of whether the advisee considers the adviser to have superior knowledge, and regardless of the psychological roots of the desire for power. Researchers have also found that power leads individuals to experience an inflated perception of control, and overconfidence in their abilities and thus may tend to assume, (incorrectly) that people will definitely follow their unsolicited advice. When a person becomes aware that his or her advice was not followed, they have a feeling of rejection and ineffective influence. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily deter people from continuing to give unsolicited advice, in fact the drive to feel powerful may blind them to the negative or ineffective impact of their behaviour. Not surprisingly, and quite ironically, researchers found that those who seek to secure power by providing unsolicited advice are are less inclined to take advice from others and as a result may make less accurate decisions. Another reason for unsolicited advice is that some people greatly overestimate their ability, and may in such a hurry to tell you what to do that they might not even listen completely to your situation. Low self-esteem may be a cause of delivering unsolicited advice, researchers have found that individuals protect themselves against feelings of inferiority and shame by externalising the blame for their failures or telling others what to do. Remember unsolicited advice does not always come from a bad place, sometimes there is a positive motivation. For example, the advice giver may be so excited about the solution they have discovered that they can’t wait to tell you what to do. Alternatively, the advice giver is a kind person and does not want you to make the same mistakes they did. Giving advice may be a person’s way of forging a connection, establishing a stronger interpersonal relationship. The advice giver may genuinely misunderstand their role in the interaction, you may want to vent about an issue to simply “get it off your chest” and not desire any resolution. Finally, they may wish to motivate you to take action rather than to continually complain. Do not forget that giving advice involves a recommendation to another individual about how to handle a situation and has the potential for the advisor to meaningfully impact the behaviour of the recipient.

How does the recipient feel?

  • Patronised

  • Micromanaged

  • Frustrated

  • Controlled

  • Resentful

  • Further erodes low self esteem

  • Judged

  • Resentful

  • Guilty

  • Angry

What can you do when someone provides unsolicited advice?

  • Be aware of your emotional reaction and take a pause if required before responding. (click here Reconsider all the positive and negative reasons as to why someone may have a natural tendency to provide advice.

  • Remind yourself that it can be an act of kindness to listen to the advice of others

  • Do not take the advice personally

  • Reflect on what you can learn from the interaction

  • Consider the nature of your relationship with the person

  • Decide if you will reflect on the advice or simply decline the advice

  • Formulate and deliver a succinct politely assertive response

Is unsolicited advice ever OK ?

There are a occasions where it may be warranted to give unsolicited advice. Nevertheless before you say anything it is wise to take a moment, pause and ask yourself the following question: “Is my urge to give advice about me, or the situation?” If you are uncertain as to the answer then discuss the situation with a respected and trusted colleague, or friend.

What should leaders do?

Increase their self awareness in this area. When tempted to provide advice consider if the advice is warranted or if an exploratory conversation would be more beneficial. To combat the potential social costs around giving and taking advice, organisations need to create cultures in which organisational members are encouraged to share information and leaders are rewarded for seeking and integrating the perspectives of others.

So what did my client do?

At the end of the coaching session my client realised that his colleague was in fact very smart and kind, her advice was because she was quick to see solutions in a very stressful and complex environment. “I think I need to politely explain to her that her brain works faster than ours, and it’s a bit overwhelming… In hindsight listening and discussing her advice could in fact be mutually beneficial.” It would be remiss if me to not ask the obvious, send me an email and tell me "Do you consider my blogs to be unsolicited advice.. ?" 😜


References: Schaerer, M., Tost, L.P., Huang, L., Gino, F. and Larrick, R. (2018). Advice Giving: A Subtle Pathway to Power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(5), pp.746–761. Donnellan, M.B., Trzesniewski, K.H., Robins, R.W., Moffitt, T.E. and Caspi, A. (2005). Low Self-Esteem Is Related to Aggression, Antisocial Behavior, and Delinquency. Psychological Science, 16(4), pp.328–335. See, K.E., Morrison, E.W., Rothman, N.B. and Soll, J.B. (2011). The detrimental effects of power on confidence, advice taking, and accuracy. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 116(2), pp.272–285. ‌ Tost, L. P., F. Gino, and R. Larrick. "Power, Competitiveness, and Advice Taking: Why the Powerful Don't Listen." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 117, no. 1 (2012): 53–65. McIntosh, R.D., Fowler, E.A., Lyu, T. and Della Sala, S. (2019). Wise up: Clarifying the role of metacognition in the Dunning-Kruger effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(11), pp.1882–1897.

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