Unsolicited advice or feedback is always for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver.
Think about it. How did you react the last time someone gave you unsolicited advice or feedback – in the office or out in the big mean world – that started with “You should…” or “You need to…” or “Have you tried…” or “Did you think about…” or “If you just…” ad infinitum?
Did you immediately think “What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” Or did it sting a little bit and you wished the other person would keep their opinions to themselves?
I’m in the latter category but am trying to get better at remembering the giver is only trying to help.
You see, giving the advice makes the giver feel better about themselves because they’re trying to help us (or tear us down because they’re a jerk). Either way, they feel better, and we generally feel worse.
In life, it’s usually our mothers who are full of unsolicited advice.
But at work, we’re surrounded by people who are pretty sure they could help by offering an unasked-for suggestion. Thankfully, only those at or above our level on the food chain have the gonads to speak up and give us advice or feedback they think we’ll follow.
And the funny thing is, while most people are perfectly willing and able to give unsolicited feedback at the drop of a hat, when we honestly want some feedback about self-improvement or advice on overcoming a roadblock we’ve run into, getting solicited, constructive feedback or suggestions is like pulling teeth.
Ok, it’s look in the mirror time, folks. If you identify with either the giver or receiver of unsolicited feedback, read on.
If you’re perfectly happy shooting advice from the hip and taking pot shots from your boss and coworkers (or your mother), you need a kind of help I can’t offer.
First of all, I recognize that feedback and advice (aka helpful suggestion) aren’t the same thing. One is information and the other is a recommendation. Both should be intended to be helpful, but the delivery is often so badly mangled, the receiver gets no benefit.
Look, feedback is not a four-letter word. We shouldn’t dread giving or receiving it, and there are some best practices for both that you already know. What we tend to forget is giving and receiving effective feedback are leadership skills that have to be honed and practiced intentionally.
For starters, go back and read Kevin B’s Effective Feedback in Today’s Crazy Times in February’s At C-Level. Kevin reminds us, “Feedback is [simply] information provided to another person to help him or her grow and improve.” And the feedback you’re giving has to be either requested or expected for it to be useful. Unsolicited and unexpected feedback or suggestions almost always generate negative emotions in the receiver, and when that happens, you’ve lost your audience.
“I’m only trying to help” is not a justification (or excuse) for blindsiding someone.
Helpful suggestions follow the same pattern. If the advice hasn’t been requested (effective leaders actually do ask for feedback from others), then the only way it will be received in an ‘expected’ way is if you preface what you want to say with something like: I have some ideas; would you like to hear them? If the answer is no, zip it and walk away.
And don’t think disguising your unsolicited helpful suggestions as feedback sandwiches makes them more palatable. Feedback sandwiches are an idea whose time is long past. Receivers who don’t recognize a feedback sandwich usually miss the important information in the middle and leave the conversation focused on the bread. Those who recognize the sandwich dismiss the bread as fluff and interpret the meat in the middle as criticism.
Hardly the intention of the giver.
So, let’s stop with the unsolicited advice. When we’re about to open our mouths with some “helpful” information, let’s pause to consider how the message is going to be received. Let’s remember how it feels to be the recipient of unasked-for (and usually unwanted) suggestions.
That’s a leadership skill that has to be practiced.
But that’s up to you, leader.