Seeking advice is commonplace in management – so routine we don't realize how difficult a skill it actually is. Choosing the wrong adviser, failing to explain the context adequately to them, and not weighing the advice properly are among the ways we can blow this seemingly easy managerial task.
And it usually happens in high-stakes situations, where we have identified a decision as difficult and sought counsel. "Part and parcel of making a good decision is knowing how to get good advice," Joshua Margolis, a professor at Harvard Business School, said in an interview.
Over the years, Prof. Margolis found that one colleague's advice seemed to tower over that offered by everyone else he consulted at the business school. So when the chance came to study the art of receiving and giving advice with that colleague, David Garvin, he was delighted, and the result of their collaboration was a recent article in Harvard Business Review offering ample advice.
Here's where they feel we mess up:
1. Thinking you already have the answers
As people assess whether to seek advice – and how to weigh what comes forth – they are often overconfident about their own abilities. "You don't even feel you need to reach out for advice, or do it half-heartedly, believing you can make the decision yourself. Or you reach out for affirmation of what you intend to do," Prof. Margolis said in the interview. This can be common, with advice-seeking merely a pretext to reach out for a figurative pat on the back.
2. Choosing the wrong advisers
Often we seek like-minded advisers, failing to think creatively about the expertise we need. Studies also show we are more receptive to advice from people who are likeable, friendly and unthreatening. In a sense, Prof. Garvin said, their personality traits become proxies in our mind for the quality of the advice being received. "Pick a portfolio of advisers with different expertise who will tell you the unvarnished truth. If all you get is a pat on the back, it's probably not good advice," he said. His mentor, the late Harvard Professor Roland Christensen, used to tell him: "When you pick your advisers, you pick your advice."
3. Defining the problem poorly
If your advisers don't properly understand the issue, they can't offer solid counsel. Often, advice seekers are uncomfortable laying out parts of the situation that doesn't show them in a good light, like the person asking for help with a hostile boss who fails to mention screwing up on the last big project.
Executives take the political situation they are embroiled in for granted, but it needs to be spelled out to advisers. A Goldilocks approach is needed here, not weighing the adviser down with too many details but also not being too sparse with information.
When offering advice, Prof. Garvin always asks: "Is there anything you may have done to contribute to the problem?"
Make sure you give your advisers the real deal.
4. Discounting advice
After receiving advice, too often we undervalue or dismiss it. We succumb to an "egocentric bias," putting more stock in our own brilliance than the views of others. Research has, in fact, put a number to this discounting: When individuals are given estimation tasks and then told the assessments of experts, they will only change their initial evaluation by 30 per cent in direction of the advice. So we discount by something in the order of 70 per cent.
Adding to this tendency is that we know our own reasoning for such decisions but often the advice from others comes without specific reasoning – so ask about that pattern of thinking, to help you weigh the ideas. "People feel they are truly reaching out for advice. They don't realize that this is happening – they are discounting the advice they get," Prof. Margolis said.
5. Misjudging the quality of the advice
Research shows that we value advice more if it comes from a confident source, even though that's no sign of accuracy. When advice breaks from the norm, we're skeptical. In essence, we're judging the advisers or the situation more than the advice. We also don't properly account for conflicts of interest; when a counsellor mentions a conflict, we assume that shows they are unbiased, when we need to beware the advice isn't tainted.
Giving advice is also fraught with dangers. Prof. Garvin highlights the failing of offering self-centred advice – ideas that assume the other person is you, rather than tailoring ideas to them and their situation. Prof. Margolis warns against assuming the problem brought to you is similar or identical to a situation you experienced previously. That can lead you to rush in with anecdotes and war stories, obscuring the complicated texture of the actual problem.
Over all, they urge you to be deliberate and systematic in seeking advice. Set up a diverse group of advisers and pick the appropriate ones for the situation. Also, remember that things are not always what they appear to be. Confident advisers are not necessarily better. You may not have explained the problem sufficiently. You may not understand the reasoning for advice that seems off-kilter.
"Dig deeper," Prof. Garvin concludes.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org