A manager giving advice

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When to Give Advice As a Manager5 min read

When an employee asks us to give advice, it feels good. We jump to answer them and share our knowledge almost without thinking about it. People will often at least pretend that what we said is useful, and that feeds our egos even more. And the cycle of advice-giving continues. Unfortunately, our advice is often not that good. Many times that other person will end up not taking our advice. Or worse still takes our advice, and in their context, it is useless or even harmful.

Michael Bungay Stanier calls this desire to always give advice our advice monster. His approach is to push people away from giving advice and towards a coaching approach. He challenges us to stay curious a little bit longer and rush to action and advice-giving more slowly. That is good advice…about not giving advice (hard to miss the irony there). Giving advice can demotivate our employees, it doesn’t scale, and often, we don’t understand the issue, so our advice misses the target. It is easy to fall into the trap and say, “NEVER GIVE ADVICE”.

Except, there are times when our advice actually helps (even if it is not as often as we like to think it is). So how can we know when it is useful or not? I have adapted the Cynefin Model (pronounces kuh-NEV-in) by Dave Snowden to help make sense of this challenge.

The Cynefin Model is a framework that can help all of us better understand the challenges we face. It divides challenges into 5 domains clear, complicated, complex, chaos, and confused. The model can help leaders understand how to best respond to their situation.

Clear: Give Advice

These are cases where the problem is CLEAR. For example, if someone asks us where the restroom is, we probably don’t want to stay curious for too long. We are better off pointing them in the right direction. These are situations where there are obvious best practices and established common knowledge. While it is true that people learn more when they discover the answers for themselves, with clear situations, there is not much to learn. When the problem is clear, there is a direct relationship between cause and effect. There is only one right answer, and when asked, we should provide that answer.

Complicated: Teach

There are other times where there may be more than one right answer. As an expert, we may analyze the situation and offer one or more paths forward. These are COMPLICATED situations. The line between clear and complicated is not stark. It is more like a gradient between common and expert knowledge. In these cases, we want to stay curious long enough to analyze the situation. There may be a less clear relationship between the causes and effects, and there may be many right answers. In this case, it is an opportunity to teach. For our employee to become an expert, they will need to learn to analyze the situation. If they ask for advice, and this is an area where we have some expertise, we should teach rather than tell our employees what to do. Experts’ opinions may differ, so we should encourage our employees to seek multiple opinions and learn from others as well.

Complex: Coach

Many challenges do not fall into this continuum from CLEAR to COMPLICATED. There are challenges with many unknown unknowns. In these cases, it is not clear what the right thing to do is. In these cases, we can only understand cause and effect in retrospect. These are COMPLEX situations. This includes business strategy, cultural change, coming up with a new product, and employee development. It isn’t to say that there aren’t historical precedents and things to try. It is essential to recognize that it is impossible to know what will work in advance, and it is important to experiment. With complex challenges, we should coach our employees. Have them question their assumptions and reflect on what they are seeing. Be a mirror to help them see patterns and provide appropriate constraints to make the situation manageable. 

Chaos: Push to Action

There is another space where cause and effect are not connected at all, known as CHAOS. The beginning of the Pandemic was CHAOS for many companies and organizations. Everything is in a state of flux. It is impossible to see the relationship between cause and effect. And many things are unknowable. Any advice we give will be wrong because there is no such thing as a right answer. At the same time, in CHAOS, the best thing we can do for our team is to take action, and so advising to help people take action is the best thing we can do. 

Confusion: Question to Understand

The final domain of this model is CONFUSION. Confusion is when we do not know which of the other spaces we are in. By not knowing, we can incorrectly act based on flawed assumptions, and this is a place where curiosity should dominate. We need to understand if there is a clear best practice? Are there experts, or am I an expert in this? Are cause and effect unclear? Or is there no relationship between cause and effect at all? 

Answering these questions and knowing which domain we are in can help us understand how to respond to our employees’ requests for advice. 

When the situation is…Take this action
ClearGive Advice
ComplicatedTeach and Get Other Opinions
ChaosPush to Action
ConfusionQuestion to Understand

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

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formerly Keith Corbin Coaching

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