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Why Taking Advice Always Beats Giving Advice

Giving advice can destroy reputation and relationships quicker than you think.

Key points

  • Everyone loses when you give advice, both the giver and the receiver.
  • Equally, everyone loses when the receiver rejects advice.
  • But taking advice can be a win-win for both parties and an instant boost to the giver’s reputation.

In his best-selling book, Give and Take, Wharton Professor Adam Grant outlines how people are either Givers or Takers. He defines givers as those who "contribute to others without expecting anything in return." In comparison, takers "strive to get as much as possible from others." It's a simple but intuitively appealing construct that shows how givers rise to the top.

When we apply this concept to advice, should we be givers or takers?

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In our fast-paced world, few pause long enough to appreciate the fine line between giving and taking advice. But there is one, and it's not always the gift you think.

Much of my work involves dispensing reputation and behavioral advice. I'm not alone. Lawyers, financiers, therapists, engineers, and consultants are all engaged in giving professional advice.

Ask yourself how you feel when you give advice. How do you feel when others don't take it? Both giving and receiving advice can be a lose-lose scenario. What starts as a well-meaning intention ends with the giver and receiver being worse off.

As the giver, you lose. As the receiver, you lose regardless of whether they accept advice or not.

Why Everyone Loses When You Give Advice

If you're like others, you regularly give advice and enjoy being asked for your opinion. After all, it's flattering — it can make you feel smart and influential and even enhance your identity. But when you give guidance, what really happens?

For a while, you feel great, an instant self-esteem boost, perhaps an unconscious sense of superiority. You dispense your wisdom. "When I was in your position…."

But something else happens in the mind of the receiver.

When friends and colleagues receive advice, they tend to fall into one of two camps, they become either an advice-taker or an advice-rejector.

Even if it's a paying client, unless advice is dispensed sensitively, the receiver feels just that bit more diminished, not just in your eyes but in their own. What's more, they grow to resent you as the source of their lower self-esteem. Deliberate distancing and separation begin.

If you decide to volunteer unsolicited advice, typically, friends, family, or colleagues will detect implied criticism. Signaling their right to a contrary view, they may become more entrenched in their views in a form of psychological reactance. Should you repeat your pearls of wisdom, prepare to become the unwelcome dinner guest.

As American author Richelle E. Goodrich says, "Giving advice is like seeing an elephant in someone's path and suggesting they remove it. Heeding advice requires forcing the elephant to budge."

But everyone has a choice, accept the recommendation, guidance, or suggestion; or reject it.

Why Everyone Loses When You Reject Advice

If you regularly discount other opinions, you're most likely an advice-rejector. You're not alone. Most confident and narcissistic leaders are clandestine advice-rejectors. The sophisticates feign to listen, then revert to their original opinion. Alternatively, they merely use new information to solidify their views in confirmation bias.

In one study, 59 percent of leaders reported that they consulted multiple advisors, yet 53 percent ignored the feedback. If new information is uncomfortable, advice is buried, courtesy of the ostrich effect.

The decision to reject advice impacts high-stakes situations and commercial outcomes. For example, around 90 percent of new start-ups fail, most mergers and acquisitions deliver no shareholder value and corporate lifespans continue to shrink.

But rejecting advice can cost socially and interpersonally. Research found the resentful and ego-deflated advice-giver punishes the advice-rejecter, damaging the working relationships.

Why Taking Advice Is Win-Win and Boosts Reputation

Should you give or take advice? The science is clear:

  1. As the advice-giver, know that advice is best received when solicited or paid for in a professional service. Understand why others reject solicited or unsolicited advice by understanding the associated behavioral biases.
  2. As the advice-taker, adopt this insight only if it helps your decision-making. Bruce Lee suggests, "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own."

    When you decide to take advice, both parties win psychologically. Of course, the direction must be worth accepting strategically and commercially. We've all had lousy legal, medical, and business counsel.

  3. As the advice-rejector, remember the effect on ego and relationships. Acknowledge the other person's contribution. "I appreciate your consideration. It has given me a valuable perspective that shaped my thinking more than you think. On this one occasion, I've decided X."

Deciding Your Approach

Perhaps instead of giving advice, pay meaningful compliments to signal appreciation. It makes everyone feel good. Initially, the receiver may cringe because, like advice, compliments surprise us. Author Christopher Littlefield believes we respond awkwardly as "an unconscious act of self-protection." Rejection can insult the giver who feels slighted at a nervous brush-off.

You may still be undecided about which approach to adopt. (See this explanation on why indecision occurs, offering science-based methods to help overcome it.)

To insulate your personal reputation, it's useful to understand why accepting advice in high-stakes decision-making is so difficult yet critical for leadership. Just as employees are taught how to give and receive feedback, learning about advice communication can make or break a career.

It's an underestimated skill that benefits us socially, commercially, and professionally.

While common wisdom suggests you should always give more than you take, when it comes to advice, being a taker rather than a giver may well be the better route to sustaining your reputation and relationships.

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