The Dangerous Business of Workplace Advice


In my profession, I am in the business of offering advice.

That may not seem like a perilous role — but I assure you it is. Even when individuals seek me out as a workplace coach (and pay for the content of my advice), they are not always open to receive what I have to offer. This may be related to something researchers call “Feedback Orientation”. (Read more about that here.) However, this may have more to do with the fact that people, are quite complicated.

Although clients may thank me months later —  I often hear the “sound of crickets” as a response to my honest advice.

It is difficult to sort out responsibility when a career isn’t moving along as expected. It is even more difficult to realize that we own some of that responsibility. It is a process, for sure.

During our work lives, most of us will be in the tenuous position of offering workplace advice. Here, are a few guidelines, learned from years of joyous revelation and bruises.

  • Gauge receptivity. People are endlessly complicated — and we don’t own a crystal ball. So, when someone seeks advice from us we assume they really want that advice. Warning: this is not always the case. Sometimes we simply need to vent and aren’t really looking for advice of any kind. Keep this in mind.
  • Stay in tepid water. A good rule of thumb is this: Don’t open any door they haven’t already cracked open. When discussing loaded topics, things can get heated very quickly. You may not know the complete history of a specific issue or problem. So remain cautious.
  • Timing is everything. Don’t lay down the “tough stuff” when someone feels beaten down by the workplace. Have the foresight to take on a topic in stages. When an individual has had a less than positive experience (passed over for promotion, etc.), they need time to heal. They may need to just stay in process mode for a bit of time. So, hold back.
  • Focus on skill building. I’ve found that in most cases, building skills offers the confidence to move on effectively. Steer your contact toward longer-term mentoring or training. You are less likely to crash and burn.

Of course, if someone seeks our advice — we should try to help. At the very least offer, “What can I do?” and lend an empathetic ear. Even if your only advice is to seek out a professional, being open to the unvarnished version of their experiences, is valuable.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, consultant and coach. She holds the role of Senior Consultant at Allied Talent and also serves as the Director of Thought Leadership at Kilberry Leadership Advisors.

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