The Challenge of Giving and Seeking Advice


May 2016

Dan LeClair: [0:10] You've written about the art of both giving and receiving advice. I was intrigued by that because it's something that we cannot avoid in some sense. It's part of what we all do in organizations. We're managers, right? We're managing. Tell me a little bit about that, but before you do I want to ask just a very straight forward question. Which one's more difficult? Is it the giving or the receiving?

David Garvin: [0:37] They're both difficult but in different ways. There are some predictable errors that people make in seeking advice and receiving advice and giving advice. The challenge with seeking and receiving advice comes in two axes. The first is picking the wrong adviser. We tend to pick on access, on likability, and the self confidence expressed by the individual. It turns out that none of those are good proxies for the quality of advice. We tend to pick the wrong people to advise us.

[1:25] The other problem is, there's a very large literature on how people respond once they've heard advice. They heavily, heavily discount almost whatever they hear. When it's involving numerical estimates, they apply a 30 percent discount factor.

[1:44] They move only marginally in the direction that the adviser suggested, even when that adviser is clearly more expert than many. That's the challenge on seeking and receiving advice. The challenge on giving advice is the problem of flawed analogies. 'That reminds me of a situation I faced.' People tend to jump to the analogy very, very quickly. All too often it's flawed.

[2:23] The other challenge in giving good advice is making sure you have the complete story. He interviewed a number of people who are acknowledged to be expert advisers. One of them said, "The challenge for me is my advice is only as good and only as accurate as the story I've been told."

[2:45] Those stories are often self-serving. They compress the problem. They make the advice seeker look good. That's not always the reality. Both are challenging. Picking the wrong advisers, discounting advice on seeking side, and flawed analogies, not hearing the full story or probing for details on the giving side.

Dan: [3:15] What are the rewards? What if we were to solve some of these problems? What's on the other side? What can we expect?

David: [3:23] First, a misconception, because there's an important misconception out there. The misconception is, the more you seek advice, the less you will be valued as an independent thinker.

[3:39] It turns out that's just flat out wrong. The relationship between advice and performance evaluations is actually an inverted U. If you seek little or no advice, you're not viewed very favorably. If you seek advice all the time on every question, you're not viewed very favorably. Seeking a modicum of advice from experts is viewed as a sign of good judgment of knowing your own limitations.

[4:15] Part of the payoff is better performance and better evaluations by superiors and peers. The second payoff is, you will learn. Advice is a form of information sharing. You can learn in many different ways. Advice in many ways is different from what we call counsel. Advice is, give me the answer. Should we build the factory in China or not?

[4:47] Counsel is navigation and process. How might I approach this difficult supply negotiation? What might be some hot buttons? What should I be aware of that I haven't attended to? That's advice, but of a very different kind. We call it counsel.

[5:10] On the other side of counsel is success, because very few people have those process skills before they've done the experience. This is a way of transferring experience before you approach a novel situation.

Dan: [5:28] Is there anything special about academe that might give you the opportunity to offer special guidance to those that'd be watching this video?

David: [5:39] My own view is that academics are not just researchers and not just teachers. They are developers of their students. It's a deep responsibility. We often don't teach the associated skill set.

[5:58] Advice giving, particularly probing to understand the students' arguments, helping him or her formulate a possible path of action, but letting them do the decision making, is part of the essence of the professorial role. Deans do the same thing for faculty. Senior faculty do the same thing for junior faculty. Advice is essential to navigating your path through academia.