When Greg Dyke accepted the job as the BBC’s new director-general in early 2000, he found a troubled organization in need of reform. Other executives advised him to start off by presenting a clear vision for the broadcasting company and then implement it by directing and delegating. Dyke took a different approach: he traveled for five months before stepping into his new role, visiting offices across the UK, and asking BBC employees what he should do to make things better for them, for viewers, and for listeners. His approach paid off: within Dyke’s first year on the job, television ratings increased for both BBC1 and BBC2, and BBC radio reached record audiences.
Like the executives who advised Dyke, we all seem to have a good idea of what useful advice is: using our knowledge and experience to tell others how to narrow down their options and zero in on the right move. But new research my colleagues and I conducted shows that there is a better way to approach advice. People seeking advice are generally not interested in being told what to do, but in gathering information so that they will have more alternatives and perspectives to consider. This mismatch causes problems: the advice we give others ends up being less helpful, the recipients don’t follow our recommendations, and we view them negatively as a result. Dyke, it turns out, was a master of giving advice that truly helped his employees — and led them to succeed.
In a laboratory study of advice giving, my colleagues and I recruited participants who were either proficient in coding in Java (to serve as advisors) or were interested in learning to code in Java (to serve as advice seekers). We connected pairs of advisors and advice seekers to engage in a text chat in real time about giving or receiving advice about learning Java. We found that the advice seekers viewed the purpose of the interaction to be more information-focused, while advisors viewed it as more guidance-focused. This disconnect led advisors to overestimate the likelihood that their advice would be taken. As a result, advice seekers risked facing unanticipated costs if they didn’t take the advice, such as offending the advice giver and reducing their interest in giving more advice in the future.
The mismatch in goals between givers and recipients of advice is part of a broader problem: experts and other advisors often fail to truly understand the perspective and concerns of advice seekers. Though we usually have experience both with seeking and giving advice, when we put our advice giver’s hat on, we seem to forget what we find most helpful in reaching out to others. Bad advice is a dime a dozen. Consultants, counselors, parents, teachers, physicians, financial analysts, and the rest of us are often guilty of not putting enough time and effort into giving advice, providing ill-fated recommendations as a result. A simple shift in goals, as we approach advice-giving situations, can help us avoid this fate.
For instance, as advice givers, we focus more on the benefits of our recommendation than on its costs. In one study, sexual assault experts who gave advice to women on how to avoid and deal with sexual assault put more emphasis on the benefits than on the costs of possible prevention strategies. For instance, the experts stressed how using self-defense strategies could promote women’s mental health and self-esteem, while women focused on how they could lead to more injuries for them or make the assailant madder and more violent. From the women’s standpoint, what the experts recommended may lead to bigger problems (e.g., more aggression) rather than solving them.
As advice givers, we also give different recommendations to others than we would give to ourselves. Leaders advise lower level management to model the right behaviors for employees, like inviting them to contribute their ideas or giving them more opportunity for personal growth, when in fact they often do not behave that way themselves. And many of us often tell others not to spend too much time on social media, to go to the gym more often rather than sitting on the couch watching TV, to be more environmentally responsible, and when we do not do so ourselves. There is a disconnect between what advisers and advisees seem to value, with advisers focusing on socially acceptable factors and advisees focusing on more practical ones. For instance, research has found that participants who were advising others on how to choose among jobs suggested they focus on attributes that are socially acceptable, such as “self-fulfillment,” instead of also including less socially acceptable considerations, such as level of pay.
Taking the perspective of the person we are speaking with can help us all become better advice givers (and better understand people more generally). Perspective-taking may involve thinking through the decision as if we did not have the information we have as experts. When we think more like novices, our advice ends up being more helpful, research finds. In one study, Ting Zhang of Harvard Business School recruited expert guitarists and asked some of them to flip their guitar around so that they were strumming using their non-dominant hand (right hand for lefties, and vice versa). She asked others, those in the control group, to play as they normally would. Next, all these experts watched a video clip of a beginner guitarist who struggled to play a few chords and were asked to give him advice. Zhang also recruited a separate group of guitarists who had only been playing for one year or less and asked them to rate the experts’ advice. These novices rated the advice of experts who held and played the guitar untraditionally as more helpful than the advice from those in the control condition. Behaving like a beginner put them in the mindset of the beginner, and better advice was the result.
Too often, as givers of advice, we rely too much on our own assumptions when trying to predict others’ actions, thoughts, and feelings. Before offering recommendations, we should ask our advisee questions aimed at better understanding why they consulted us in the first place and how we can be most helpful to them. When Dyke traveled around the UK to talk to the BBC staff, he asked them questions and then carefully listened to their answers. He learned that employees were frustrated, unmotivated and disempowered, but he also learned about their ideas on how to fix these problems. He gained a deep understanding of their perspectives. And so when Dyke formally addressed the staff on his first official day on the job, everyone was eager to hear his plans and to work with him to make them a reality.