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 my advice), they are not always open to receive what I have to offer. This may be related to something researchers have named “Feedback Orientation”. (Read here.) Yet, 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 an initial 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 alone own some of that responsibility. Moving through this is a process.

During our work lives, many of us will be in the tenuous position of offering workplace advice. Here are a few guidelines, learned from years of both revelation and push-back.

  • Gauge receptivity early. People are endlessly complicated — and we don’t own a crystal ball. When someone seeks advice, we assume they truly want that advice. Warning: this is not always the case. Sometimes they need to vent and aren’t really looking for advice of any kind.
  • 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 sticky very quickly. You may not know the complete history of a specific issue or problem. Remain cautious.
  • Timing is everything. Don’t lay down the law when someone already 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 also need to stay in process mode for a longer bit of time. So, hold back.
  • Focus on skill building. I’ve found that in many cases, skill-building offers the confidence to move on effectively. Steer your contact toward longer-term mentoring or training goals.

Of course, if someone seeks your advice — try to help.

Even if your only advice is to seek out a professional, lending a listening ear can be 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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