Strategic Thinking

Understanding why quitters win

Why We Ignore Good Advice

Research reveals why we often sabotage ourselves by ignoring good advice.

Good Advice Is Everywhere

We are swimming in a sea of good advice. Yet we often refuse to take it, and end up drowning.  In a series of clever experiments described in her new book Sidetracked Harvard social scientist, Francesca Gino has found that despite evidence from hundreds of studies over the past two decades showing our decisions greatly benefit from another pair of eyes, we routinely sabotage ourselves by refusing to take advice.

The question is why?

1. The Power Problem.  In one study, Gino and her colleagues Leigh Plunkett Tost and Richard Larrick discovered that making people feel powerful—even temporarily—by asking them to describe a time when they had control over others significantly reduced their willingness to use advice. According to Gino “we are trying to make a good impression on others, and show them we are knowledgeable and competent individuals.” Taking advice somehow feels like admitting that we don’t really deserve our high status. 

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2. The Anger Effect vs. The Gratitude Solution.  Whether or not we take counsel also has a lot to do with the peaks and valleys of our moods. In another experiment, Gino and Maurice Schweitzer at the University of Pennsylvania made one group of people feel angry by watching a short movie clip about a man being bullied. Others were induced to feel gratitude by watching a touching clip in which a man received an unexpected gift from his coworkers.

The gracious bunch proved three times more likely than the mad men and women to accept advice on a completely unrelated task, while also performing better as a result. In the midst of gracious bliss, the people around us feel more like helpful friends than suspicious foes.

3. The Anxiety Paradox.  Not all negative emotions drive us away from advice.  Anxiety can make us more prone to listen. Imagine for a moment that I asked you to estimate the value of the coins sitting in a glass jar in front of you.  You will have access to an advisor to help you estimate.  Will you take the advice? According to another series of experiments Gino and her colleagues found that if you’re feeling anxious you will probably take that advice.  The rub is that “anxious individuals rely heavily on advice, even when the advice is bad.”

What if I told you that your advisor gets paid a bonus the more your guess exceeds the true value of the jar? Disturbingly, anxiety lowers our self-confidence which causes us to discount our own judgment even when the only alternative is listening to advisors with a clear conflict of interest.  And what if you pay good money for that corrupted advice?  You are even more likely to take it.  Accounting scandal, anyone? 

4. The Cooperation Solution.  Even when people felt powerful, knowing they would eventually be cooperating with their advisor on a mutually beneficial task virtually eliminated the power problem. Cooperation fosters trust which fosters even more cooperation. Cooperation also tends to increase positive emotions, which naturally encourages us to respect the opinions of others, while also giving our own judgments a fair hearing. 

French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously quipped that “Hell is other people.”  Whether or not Sartre’s dour observation is true, we often treat good advice like it comes from a devil. The evidence points to a simple solution. Better decisions come from surrounding ourselves with trusted people and asking for their opinions.

Nick Tasler has a background in organizational psychology. He is the author of Why Quitters Win: Decide to Be Excellent.

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