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Are You Disabling Your Organization with Advice?

Quiet leaders don’t give advice to solve problems—they help their employees think of solutions for themselves.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Meet Dave. To his bosses, he’s an experienced executive who gets results with the company’s best interests in mind. But to many other people who work with and for him, Dave is a downer.

Dave likes to give lots of unsolicited advice. His need to be the smartest guy in the room means he makes decisions to which he (but nobody else) is committed. His poor listening skills prevent him from tapping into the gifts, passions, and abilities of others. His proclivity to find fault breaks down spirits and relationships, as survival instincts cause people to turn inward and stop working as a team.

Dave’s behavior has reduced his department’s capacity to what he can personally have an impact on. Consequently, his organizational whole is less than the sum of its parts. And although his boss seems blind to his faults, it’s only a matter of time until others’ frustrations bubble up to the top. If Dave doesn’t change, his career will surely grind to a halt.

Most of us have had to endure the unpleasant experience of working with know-it-alls. It’s easy to spot this arrogance in others, but we’re usually blind to our own blowhard tendencies.

Fortunately, Dave followed his intuition and commissioned a 360-degree assessment. From the feedback he received, he learned that many of his colleagues felt disrespected and unappreciated. With deeper reflection, he realized that he meddled because he was holding tight to some negative mental models (his employees were “inexperienced” and “lacked discipline”) and, as a result, he was trapped in a downward spiral of bossing people around, which eroded commitment and led to poor results. Finally, he accepted the hard truth that he was disabling his department and decided to change.

He started by reading David Rock’s book, Quiet Leadership. The book’s thesis is that leaders can best improve their teams’ performance by encouraging better thinking, not by handing out advice. According to Rock, “A quiet leader gives less advice than almost anyone else on the planet” because advice is usually:

Autobiographical: It’s based on the needs and experiences of the giver, not the intended recipient.

Misdirected: It’s focused on the wrong problem. ”The dilemma that people first put forward,” Rock says, “is almost always not their main issue” because if they “were clear about the central challenge… they probably would have solved it anyway.”

Rejected: It’s virtually impossible to get people to act solely by giving them advice. People tend to reject ideas offered by others in favor of their own. In fact, Rock recommends, “if you have the exact idea that someone needs to hear, definitely don’t tell them,” as they are likely to reject it and be worse off.

The power of quiet leadership is rooted in neuroscience research, which has found that when people discover an insight, they enter a state of illumination where they receive a physiological treat: a dopamine rush. Quiet leaders focus on helping others find insights—not by solving the problem for them, but by helping them improve how they are thinking about the problem—and thereby transition from illumination to action.

Like any habit, breaking out of the advice trap is hard work. But it pays off. Dave, for instance, quickly started making progress and receiving positive feedback by focusing on several key objectives:

• Embracing the fundamental delegation principle that while he has the final vote on what needs to be done (i.e., objectives and measures of success), his employees have the final say over how to get it done (i.e., supporting strategies and tactics)

• Eliminating “why” from his vocabulary, because it focuses on the past rather than the future and puts people on the defensive

• Replacing declarative statements such as “you should…” or “I think…” with open-ended questions

• Being more mindful of the number of times his conversations focus on exploring solutions rather than dissecting problems

• Encouraging progress without striving for perfection

As Dave changes, the people he works with are also changing. They are now being challenged to think out loud rather than shift their problem-solving responsibility to Dave by asking for advice. Quiet leaders are very suspicious of questions. They understand that hiding behind the questions are problem solvers waiting to be developed and that, by remaining relatively quiet, in time, people will stop coming to them for answers and learn to think better for themselves.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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