Give Unasked-for Advice

Many people take offense at unasked-for advice:

  • “If I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.”
  • “Where do you come off telling me what to do? You think you’re so smart. Well, stuff it.”
  • “Just because I have a problem, doesn’t mean I want you to fix it. I just want to be heard.”

Yet Jack Welch, GE’s celebrated former CEO, told me that among his proudest achievements was creating a culture at GE that encouraged unasked-for advice and feedback. “That way, when I had to let people go, it was no surprise to them.” And of course, the remaining employees were getting more useful input than they would have received at other corporations. That, of course, helped them grow, and in turn, helped the company provide better products and services.

When you stop to think about it, that makes perfect sense. Imagine I created two clones of a workplace. In Workplace A, senior management created a culture in which honest feedback and suggestions, even if unsolicited, were encouraged. So, if an employee saw a co-worker or even the boss doing something that seemed ineffective, the company norm was to tactfully provide the input. The issues could range from bad breath to poor communication style to a weak approach to a task. And in the absence of a problem, when an employee had an idea, he or she would be encouraged to share it with the appropriate person.

In contrast, in Workplace B, the norm was to give advice and feedback only when requested. If you see a problem or have an idea you think would help a co-worker or boss? Keep it to yourself unless your input is requested. Unfortunately, most people with bad breath, a weak approach to tasks, or poor communication style are unaware of their deficiency and so wouldn’t ask for input even if they were mature enough to admit to that deficiency.

So I’d bet that Workplace A’s employees would grow more than Workplace B’s. They’d also have more opportunities to feel the pleasure of sharing ideas with others. And able to confront frustrating coworkers directly, they’d be less likely to bad-mouth and otherwise sabotage them. That would avoid the culture of office politics, backstabbing, and paranoia that poisons so many workplaces.

Of course, input, asked-for or not, must be dispensed tactfully, something easier said than done. So, if I were in charge of an organization, instead of scheduling another of those hokey team-building or diversity workshops, I’d offer a session on direct yet tactful communication. For example, a poor way to give advice is: “I think you should do X.” Better: “Would you mind if I offered a suggestion?” Few people will say no. After getting assent, say, “I’ve noticed X. Might you want to consider Y?”

That workshop would also need to address many employees’ ingrained resistance to giving or receiving unsolicited input. Many employees come from families or cultures in which direct feedback, even if solicited, is rare.

Advice I’d Give My Child

You do a co-worker a favor by tactfully giving unsolicited advice. If, however, the recipient reacts poorly, and especially if he or she seems likely to retaliate, consider, in the future, withholding such favors from that employee.

And when someone gives you an unsolicited suggestion, be grateful. It just gives you a new option: you can always reject it. And if it’s a criticism, also be appreciative: It’s better to be stabbed in the front than in the back.

Being open to giving and getting unsolicited advice will also help your relationships. So many couples stew inwardly which damages the relationship.

Encouraging you to give unasked-for advice is among the most potent pieces of unasked-for advice I could give you.

© 2007, Marty Nemko

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Marty Nemko holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught in Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He is the worklife columnist in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and is the producer and host of Work With Marty Nemko, heard Sundays at 11 on 91.7 FM in (NPR, San Francisco), and worldwide on . 400+ of his published writings are available free on that website and is a co-editor of Cool Careers for Dummies. and author of The All-in-One College Guide. E-Mail.

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