Michael Bungay Stanier, an Oxford scholar, sought-after coach, bestselling author, speaker, and founder of Box of Crayons, is at the forefront of shaping how organisations worldwide make being "coach-like" an everyday leadership behaviour. Thinkers50, "the Oscars of management thinking," has recognised him as the #1 thought leader in coaching. He was also the first-ever Canadian Coach of the Year.
Despite his phenomenal successes, Michael is not afraid to poke fun at himself or to share his stumbles, believing that these are what make us human. We all screw up. He frequently talks about how he knocked himself unconscious as a labourer by hitting himself on the head with a shovel and about the time he was sued by one of his law school lecturers for defamation.
In this exclusive interaction with Human Capital, the global coaching guru shares unique insights into how advice-giving can be counterproductive, why we must stay curious longer, and how leaders can become more coach-like.
We must begin on a congratulatory note with well-merited kudos to you on your new book, The Advice Trap, which is a follow-up to your Wall Street Journal bestseller The Coaching Habit. To the conventional mind, your book’s theme seems counterintuitive. It casts a critical eye on advice-giving. When could giving advice turn into a trap, and what are its hidden downsides?
Thanks for the good wishes!
There’s actually nothing wrong with advice itself. In fact, the ongoing transmission of knowledge is one thing that allows community and civilisation to evolve, so I’m definitely not against advice. What I’m wary of is the Advice Trap, which is when our first, instinctive response in most situations is to jump in with advice, opinions, ideas and suggestions. That’s when things go off the rails.
There are three ways leaping into advice-giving gets you into trouble:
i. You are trying to solve the wrong problem
It’s a rookie mistake to think that the first thing put on the table is the real issue. It very rarely is. But if you start solving that, you’re working hard to fix the wrong thing.
ii. Your advice isn’t as good as you think it is
For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re clear on the real challenge. You know exactly what the real issue is. The second way advice-giving goes wrong is overrating our own advice. We’re wired with a number of cognitive biases that make us believe our advice is better than it actually is. If you doubt me, take a look at all the advice you are given on a regular basis and how not-quite-right it is. Well, that’s how people feel about your advice.
iii. Poor leadership
Again, for the sake of argument, let’s say you both know the problem and you have a fabulous solution. The third trap with advice-giving is that it might not be the right leadership act. Enabling someone else to figure out a solution is an empowering act. They become more confident, competent, and autonomous. And even if their idea isn’t quite as good as yours, you’re probably winning a bigger prize with that outcome.
Your book is enlivened throughout by the metaphor of the “Advice Monster.” What is the Advice Monster? Can you share the distinct personas it takes on?
The Advice Monster is an embodiment of that desire we have to leap in and “add value” by offering a solution.
We all have an Advice Monster. It has three different personas. Each persona reflects a different way to manage anxiety, and while it can cause some short term relief, it wears you down over the long term.
“Tell-It” is motivated by making sure you have all the answers to all the problems. This is how you add value. Trying to have all the answers is exhausting and impossible.
“Save-It” is motivated by rescuing everyone. According to Save-It, your job is to ensure no one ever stumbles, struggles or fails. You need to leap and save the day. Trying to save everyone is exhausting and impossible.
“Control-It” is motivated by never letting go of control. You’re holding on to everything for dear life because if you give up control, who knows what chaos will ensue? Trying to control everything is exhausting and impossible.
How, then, can we break out from the hold of our inner Advice Monster?
It’s simple but difficult. It’s about staying curious a little bit longer, not just for the sake of being curious, but for seeing what happens when you don’t provide the answer, when you don’t rescue the person or when you don’t control everything. You’ll be anxious that disaster will strike. But what you’ll find is that staying curious a little bit longer empowers others and lifts a burden from your shoulder.
In today’s uncertain business environment, where teams have to face new and unexpected challenges as a result of COVID-19, the case for being a coach-like leader is stronger than ever. However, one of the things leaders might be thinking about right now is, “How do I fit coaching into an already busy schedule?” Your book has a startling thought: Coaching is no longer an event. It is a way of being with each other. Could you elaborate on this?
Behind the question, “How do I fit it in?” is a more disruptive thought: Why would I bother?
Let’s start by defining coaching. Stay curious a little longer, and rush to action and advice-giving a little more slowly. It’s a practical, behaviour-based definition. And let’s call it “being more coach-like” rather than coaching because we’re not trying to turn leaders into coaches but to have them add coaching to their leadership repertoire.
Next, realise that it’s not about fitting it in or adding it to your schedule. Your schedule is already full, and there’s no chance of this feeling important and urgent enough to change what’s already there. So think instead of being more coach-like – staying curious longer – in everything that you already do.
Coaching is becoming an everyday behaviour, rather than an occasional, formal interaction.
And then understand the goal of being more coach-like is not only to help your organisation and the people that you lead but to help you as well. If you support people to become more competent, confident and self-sufficient, and if you help them to be focused on solving the real problems, then you’ll end up working less hard but having more impact.
What are some of the powerful questions that could help leaders transform from being advice-driven to becoming curiosity-led?
In my book The Coaching Habit, I share seven questions that I think are the “primary colours” of questioning. Here they are:
(1) The Kick Start Question: What’s on your mind?
(2) The AWE Question: And what else?
(3) The Focus Question: What is the real challenge here for you?
(4) The Foundation Question: What do you want?
(5) The Lazy Question: How can I help?
(6) The Strategic Question: If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
(7) The Learning Question: What was most useful for you?
With these seven questions, you’ll go far.
The question I delved deeply into in The Advice Trap is The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you? If, as a leader, you reframe your role as being the person who ensures we’re working on the real problem, not the person who comes up with the fast (and often wrong) answers, your value to all around you increases immeasurably
Up-Close and Personal
What has changed the most for you since the COVID-19 outbreak?
Most obviously, I'm travelling less. But the big picture is that I'm in a fallow period right now, dreaming of what my next big projects will be. So the pandemic has ensured I've spent the time wisely, rather than frittering it away.
Which hard-won lessons will this pandemic have taught you?
That America is currently a broken country.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I finished Law School being sued for defamation by one of my professors.
• Favourite quote: Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. - Nabakov
• Complete these sentences:
Life is… not to be half-lived.
I strongly believe that… we are here to serve.
• What comes to your mind when you hear these words?
Resilience: Remembering to keep breathing
Curiosity: The humility to not know
Inclusion: Muhammad Ali's short and brilliant poem: Me. We
To know more about Michael, visit www.mbs.works
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