When to Offer Advice and When to Shut Up

Have you ever gone into a new job or role and immediately seen areas for improvement?

One of my clients changed jobs recently.  He was heavily recruited by his new employer because the CEO wanted to make changes.  My client, I’ll call him Jim, was the perfect guy for the job.  He was innovative, and he had experience in the area his new company needed help.  After the first week, Jim had a long list of things he wanted to change.

What do you think would happen if Jim charged into his first team meeting with his big list of suggestions?

If you’ve ever worked in an organization, you know exactly what would happen.  The new guy bringing in his list of recommended improvements goes over about as well as your mother-in-law telling you how to raise your children.

In both situations, the other person may be more experienced.  They may even be right. But their advice is going to go over like a lead balloon if the recipient isn’t ready for it.

I confess, I have a million ideas bubbling up all the time, and sometimes it’s hard to keep them to myself.  It’s taken me decades to learn: Offering advice too early erodes your relationships and reduces your credibility.

In Jim’s case, he had the good sense to do what I call a drip feed.  He waited until an issue arose; he let other people talk about it first, then he said, “I’d like to share an idea.”Over the course of a few months he shared all of his ideas, Most were implemented.

Some might say, Jim’s the boss, he shouldn’t have to temper his approach.  He knows what he’s talking about.  He was hired to make changes.  His team should just do it.

Therein lies one of the biggest fallacies of management.  The challenge is not figuring out what needs to be done.  The greatest challenge is getting people to actually do it.

Imagine your brother brings his new girlfriend to your home to meet you.  She’s an interior decorator who’s done some of the coolest homes in the area.

Now imagine, 5 minutes into the visit, she tells you your paint color is too dark and your curtains are all wrong.  How do you feel about her?

It doesn’t matter if she’s right.  Even if you’ve spent months hating your paint color, having her point out the problems too early causes you to disengage.  You’ll probably get defensive and be less likely to take her advice in the future.  Her advice would have been better received had she waited until you asked for it.  Or at the very least, waited until you brought up the subject of home design.

I’ve had this play out real time.  I hired a decorator, and I’m sure she knew my carpet was all wrong the moment she walked in the door.  Instead of pointing it out immediately, she asked, “What are you thinking for this room?”  She waited until I told her I wanted new floor covering and paint before she made suggestions.

When you’re in a new job or role, it’s tempting to try to be super helpful by pointing out all the “needs improvement” areas early on.  But if you want your initiatives to be successful, wait until you’re fully in the swing of things to bring up opportunities for improvement.

When you offer suggestions too early, people ignore you.  When you make suggestions at the right time, they might actually implement.

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