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The Dark Side of Advice in Leadership

When a coaching client says, “That was great advice you gave me!” I feel a sense of loss every time...here’s why.
When a coaching client says, “That was great advice you gave me!
I feel a sense of loss
 every time...here’s why. 

Sundays are my reflective day. Through some domestic task or chore (this time it was mowing the lawn), my mind often self-guides itself to think about the week that was, the week that’s coming, and what I need to do in the moment to find a new learning or intention I can put to work. 

As I was finishing up the last few lines of mowing bliss this fall, I thought about my coaching client experiences the previous week, and what notable learnings or moments came from them. What emerged was a statement from one client to this effect: 

“The last time we met, you gave me some great advice about how to have that tough conversation with my colleague and how we could fix our broken relationship. I took your advice, and it went fantastic…we had a great conversation and now we really understand each other! 

There was that dreaded word that is never-to-be-spoken...Advice! 

This reflection flooded me with sensations of remorse and failure.  The notion a client felt I was shilling out advice stopped me in my tracks. 

That’s because at its core, coaching designed to be non-directive. If we are living in service of our clients and the practice of coaching, the concept of giving advice simply doesn’t fit. We don’t tell people what to do. Yes, as coaches we have learnings, insights, offerings, and sometimes a clearer next step, but if we’re in a space where we’re providing advice as our default settingthen we’re clearly failing. 

Where’s the danger in this? What is the problem with good advice? The formal definition of “advice” from the Cambridge Dictionary gives us some of the answer: 

“Advice – An opinion that someone offers you about what you should do or how you should  act in a particular situation.

The word “should” is a flashing warning sign in any place in our lives. Nothing good ever comes from using the word “should” no matter the context. It’s the language equivalent of running with scissors...it’s loaded with danger and rarely a good idea. 

Are You An Advice Monster? 

This year has been a crap sandwich by most measures, but one great thing that landed in 2020 was Michael Bungay Stanier’s latest book – The Advice Trap. In his well-crafted style that’s peppered with irreverence and full of practicality, MBS dismembers the concept of advice and how we can tame The Advice Monster that lives within us. In the book, he defines three distinct personas of The Advice Monster:   

Tell It – you are convinced that you add so much value through your advice that you have all the answers, all the time, via your wise advice. 

Control It – you use sage advice to retain or regain control over a situation or other people. 

Save It – your job is to rescue everyone from any challenge or obstacle they may face through your life-saving advice. 

used this framework to sense-check myself and see if I did provide advice. I had a hard think anresolved that I hadn’t provided adviceI didn’t tell anybody what they “should” do next or an action they “should” take. 

So why did my clients reflect it back to me in that form? 

The insight I offer is that we all lean into the crutch of advice. Even when an insight or offering is provided for us without any future instruction or “should”, we often process it and contextualize it as advice, because it is the known container for us. It creates an easier path for us to take the learning or insight on board and fix whatever is broken or bring about a change faster and with less effort. It’s baked into us through our experiences and etched in our nomenclature. We are always on the lookout for great advice. 

But we can change this. 

The Reframe On Advice 

Here’s my offering The word advice needs a fundamental reframe.  

We need to empower ourselves to find the advice we choose give ourselveswhich we harvest through reflection, conversations from others, and the learnings that are always around us.  

What would it look like if the only advice we took was the advice we gave ourselves? That way, we have ownership, we hold ourselves capable of the action, and we remove the shackles of “should” that might come back to haunt us. 

Mrenewed commitment as a coach (and in all my human interactions) is to truly tame any temptations to let my Advice Monster show itself. To see all the warning signs of advice, even if perceived. Yes, in the coaching context, I do and will continue to share offerings and insight through reflection, and sometimes my lived experience. But I have to be vigilant to identify anything that could be interpreted or perceived as advice and immediately turn it back to the client…pressure-test it, question it, find the holes, and not leave it alone until it is truly their own. At that point, we can feel assured the client is giving themselves the advice. 

Here’s some questions you can take away to rethink the word “advice” in the future: 

Which Advice Monster have you been recently? What would it take to tame that Monster? 

What advice can you give yourself tomorrow to move forward in a challenging situation? 

What would it look like if you stopped looking for advice and started looking for learning and insight from others? 

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What would having a 1:1 confidential coach unlock for you? Contact us at hello@fluencyleadership.com to connect with us and learn more. 

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