Book Review: The Advice Trap by Michael Bungay Stanier
Best-selling author Michael Bungay Stanier wastes no time getting to the point in his latest book, "The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever." Whereas business authors often rely on circuitous, indirect reasoning in an attempt to generalize their ideas to as broad an audience as possible, Michael Bungay Stanier jumps right to it: "Your advice doesn't work."
Why the crusade against giving advice? Whether you're a Fortune 500 CEO, a middle manager at a startup, or just starting your career in a frontline position, you likely give advice to friends, to coworkers, to customers. But the advice doesn't work. It doesn't solve problems. It doesn't make our peers, friends, and colleagues wiser, more productive, more autonomous. Not only does the advice not work, but it's also adversely affecting both your performance and the performance of your team. To Bungay Stanier, our propensity to dole out advice freely and excessively is a leading cause of dysfunction within our organizations, one that renders us less engaged, less autonomous, and less happy. Our cultural inclination to sling advice leads to a collective sense of learned helplessness.
For Bungay Stanier, the act of jumping to advice is a tacit statement that we, the advice giver, are "better than the other person." When you give advice, "You're saying they're not smart enough, wise enough, resilient enough, capable enough, competent enough, generous enough, trustworthy enough. You're saying that they're not good enough." Since we don't fully understand the situation of those to whom we are giving advice, since we don't appreciate their context and the scope of the problems, our advice is weak and flimsy at best, condescending at worst. Regardless of intention, our advice is rarely put into practice.
Bungay Stanier argues that our whole tendency to launch into advice-giving comes from our innate need to exert control over a situation. We develop advice-giving habits and even advice-giving cravings. Situating advice in the frameworks of "Atomic Habits" and "The Power of Habit," the book argues that we become wired for advice-giving in response to ambiguity or distress, which in turn triggers a dopamine release leading to repeated advice-giving.
As one might expect from the author of "The Coaching Habit," this book proposes a remedy that relies on coaching. The artful application of seven coaching questions empowers our colleagues to solve problems for themselves, making it all the more likely that they'll actually solve the problem. But it's insufficient to know about these seven questions. What's needed instead is the establishment of a new habit, a new way of relating to our peers, friends, and family. For Bungay Stanier, that new habit is being "coach-like." Not hiring a professional coach, not seeking out coaching training, but gradually integrating "coach-like" behaviors into our practices. Coach-like behaviors include asking questions, staying curious, being comfortable with silence, and clarifying ambiguity. None of these comes easily in a fast-paced, advice-prone culture. But when we find opportunities to be intentional in applying them, we see that they are intrinsically rewarding. And we observe that they actually solve problems, they actually get things done.
That's why "The Advice Trap" is an essential follow-up to "The Coaching Habit," because it shows us what we're up against when we seek to be more coach-like. In turn, it gives us the tools to break through this resistance, the tactics we need to establish a culture of coaches.
Beyond the insightful content, "The Advice Trap" is a fun, laugh-out-loud read. It's the rare business book that you'll actually want to read and apply right away, it's the rare coaching text that you'll want to devour all at once. Through sharp wit, well-used brevity, and innovative type-setting, "The Advice Trap" can easily be read in one or two sittings, just as it can be re-read in brief moments between meetings, when faced with the demands of an uncertain world, when we set an intention to be more coach-like.