As leaders, we want our team members to hit the ground running. We do our best to recruit people who are just the ‘plug and play’ sort, hoping that we can rely on them to get on with their job and leave us to do the rest. Unfortunately, that is hardly (if ever) the case, and we get drawn into what Michael Bungay Stanier in his latest book calls “the advice trap”.

Guidance may be an important part of leadership, yet we need to be very careful in how we use this competency. Typically, team members will seek (or need) our guidance in three situations:

  1. When they might have missed an opportunity or failed to notice a problem
  2. When they have no idea what to do about a situation
  3. When they need to make things right

In all three scenarios, the knee-jerk reaction of most leaders is to spring into action and offer advice. Despite this being well-meaning, it can be one of the least sensitive and productive actions you can take.

When you offer advice to a person who has missed an opportunity or failed to notice a problem, you are essentially highlighting his failing without exploiting the learning opportunity that the situation presents. Rather than going straight to the “You should have done…”, a more effective way to develop the individual would be to ask some open questions along the lines of “What you could do differently in that kind of situation…”. The emphasis is not on what happened but on the possibilities of the future. Don’t be surprised if the other person comes up with a better idea than you were about to suggest. Your job is to remain curious and set up a safe space for dialogue.

There have been countless times where I too fell for the advice trap when my team members came to me for help when they did not know (or maybe they thought they did not know) how to tackle a situation. I am not referring to situations where there is only one answer to a problem, and you have access to that answer such as “What’s the password to access the software?”  I am referring to the countless situations where team members get stuck and rather than struggle through the thinking process, they automatically turn to you for advice.

Sound familiar? This might momentarily make you feel important; it seems to justify your role as leader (i.e. expert). Yet by short-circuiting your team members’ learning you are failing at one of the most crucial aspects of your role – their personal development.

Regardless of how good your advice is, there is a good chance the advice you give them will not be retained because they know that they can always depend on you as their ‘Google’. Moreover, they would never take full ownership of implementing your great advice because it’s not something they have engaged with. With limited engagement, the chances are that your advice won’t be implemented properly, and when things go belly-up, they defend themselves by saying they were just following your instructions.

Alternatively, we are quick to offer advice as part of our constructive feedback to them when they did not quite meet expectations. Once again, our motives are typically positive; we’re just trying to help. We often see failure in our teams as something that needs to be avoided at all costs; it is costly and undesirable. Yet often it is through failure that we can help our team develop. When we are too quick with proffering our advice, we literally rob our team members of important learning opportunities. So, what’s the alternative? I have learnt to become more aware of those moments when advice is on the tip of my tongue and turn it into a set of questions:

  • “What happened?”
  • “Would you agree that you could do better?”
  • “What could you do differently in the future?”
  • “How can I support you?”

Once their minds are engaged with the process of generating their own solutions:

  • they feel accountable to set things right.
  • they exercise their own problem-solving skills.
  • they get creative at generating various options from which they can choose the most appropriate.

Once they take ownership of the process of deciding the most appropriate way forward, they will also increase their sense of personal accountability and as a result be much more committed to making the solution work. Is this guaranteed? The short answer is no. Yet even if their ‘solution’ does not work (or work perfectly) they would have learnt some invaluable lessons on their way to finding a better solution.

Our job as leaders is to make it safe to speak about the difficult topics, like failure. Rather than try to eliminate failure by being permanently at hand to dish out what we believe to be the best advice, we should be engaging with our team members in purposeful dialogue to help them develop their full potential.



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