The Advice Trap

The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever could easily be boiled down to three or four PowerPoint slides. In fact, I suspect the book originated as three or four PowerPoint slides that were puffed up and padded out into a full-length book.  

It’s written by Michael Bungay Stanier who claims to have been named the “#1 Thought Leader in Coaching and a Coaching Guru,” all capitalized.

I don’t often read books by so-called leadership gurus, capitalized or not. They tend to be a little too thin, a little too jejune for my liking.

But I’ve been doing some mentoring at work recently and I thought I could use some tips for doing it more effectively. And to be fair, the book did provide some good ideas. It just took way longer than necessary.

The Advice Trap is a follow-on to Bungay Stanier’s earlier book The Coaching Habit which I have not read. I don’t think I’ll need to either since Bungay Stanier summarizes many of the important points of that book in The Advice Trap.

Cover of The Advice Trap

The Advice Trap: Be Humble,
Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever
By Michael Bungay Stanier
Box of Crayons Press, Toronto, 2020

The main idea of the book is that we all have an “Advice Monster” inside us that needs to be controlled. The Advice Monster compels us to blurt out advice to anyone who gets within earshot – collogues, subordinates, life partners, kids – when we should really just shut up and listen.

Bungay Stanier says the Advice Monster has 3 “personas:” Tell-it, Save-It and Control-It. He describes these personas succinctly in a very large font on one page that looks very much like a PowerPoint slide.

“You must have the answer!
If you don’t Tell-It, nothing will get solved and we’ll fail.
You must be responsible for it all!
If you don’t Save-It and rescue everyone and everything, we’ll all fail.
You must stay in control!
If you don’t Control-It and manage it all, we’ll fail.” [p. 35]

Then he spends several pages of normal-sized text expanding on each of them. Redundant really since the slide-page is actually quite clear.

What these personas all have in common is the misguided belief that we, the coach, are better than the other person. We’re more capable, experienced, intelligent, disciplined, whatever. It’s obvious, isn’t it? If we weren’t better, they wouldn’t be asking us for advice.

And if we don’t give advice, we’ll fail.  That’s how we stumble into the advice trap.

But coaching and mentoring are not about us or our fear of failure.

As Bungay Stanier tells it, there are two main problems with giving advice.

  1. Our advice won’t work. There are a couple of reasons for this:
    1. We’re solving the wrong problem. The first thing people say is rarely the real problem. We need to stop and listen and ask questions in order to understand the problem more fully and to help the other person understand it better themselves. Otherwise, we’re invariably giving advice about the wrong problem.
    2. Our solution is mediocre.  We don’t have the full context. Even if we do stop and listen and ask questions it’s unlikely we can ever develop as full context as the person we’re talking to.

  2. Giving advice is a failure of leadership. It sounds paradoxical, but:
    1. Giving advice demotivates the advice-seeker. When people are repeatedly told what to do, it decreases their sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose, the three key drivers of motivation.
    2. It overwhelms the advice-giver. We’re not only doing our own jobs, we’re doing other people’s jobs too. In short, we’re taking on too much responsibility.
    3. It compromises team effectiveness. Teams of demotivated, disempowered individuals are less able to work together and rely on each other to tackle real challenges

This makes a lot of sense.

The coach’s job isn’t to give advice.

On another slide-page, Bungay Stanier says,

“Your job is to
stop seeking
the solutions
and start
finding the
challenges.” [p. 84]

Coaching is mainly about staying curious longer he says. We achieve this by asking questions, listening attentively to the answers, and acknowledging the answers we’ve heard.

Bungay Stanier recommends seven “essential” open-ended coaching questions:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • And what else?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • What do you want?
  • If you’re saying Yes to this, what must you say No to?
  • How can I help?
  • What was most useful or valuable here for you?

Listing and describing the purpose of each question isn’t enough apparently. For some bizarre reason, Bungay Stanier gives each question a name, like “The Kickstarter Question,” and “The Strategy Question.”  Then he pairs them up into combinations and gives the combinations names like “The Focus Combo” and “The Bookends Combo.”

It’s a bit silly really.

Still it makes sense when he says that we need to develop empathy to better understand the other person, mindfulness to better understand the situation and recognize when our Advice Monster is trying to take control, and humility to recognize the limits of our own knowledge and experience.

The back half of the book contains a series of “masterclasses” on how to practice these techniques and improve as a coach. 

Bottom line: getting better as a coach isn’t about becoming more effective at changing others, it about effectively changing ourselves.

The Advice Trap does contain some useful ideas about coaching and mentoring that can be applied not only at work but in our personal lives too.

I just wish I could have read the slides.

Thanks for reading.

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4 Responses to The Advice Trap

  1. And thanks to you, I don’t have to read the book myself but can glean from your bottom line. 🙂 “Bottom line: getting better as a coach isn’t about becoming more effective at changing others, it about effectively changing ourselves.”

    As I often say, your reviews are the best!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lauratfrey says:

    This is what drives me nuts about most business books. The idea here is undoubtedly good, but it’s neither original nor complex!

    Liked by 1 person

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