You know that phrase “constructive criticism”? We talk about it a lot in the context of leadership and management, often without considering how tricky a thing it is to get right. Criticism can only ever be described as ‘constructive’ if the person on the receiving end doesn’t take it personally, which makes the whole concept very delicate.
Another phrase we can put into the same category is “helpful advice”. For the people offering it, advice is always helpful – you wouldn’t bother sharing your thoughts on the matter in hand if you didn’t want to help.
But at some point in our lives, we have probably all offered someone the benefit of our wisdom, only to be surprised when they don’t heed our well-meaning suggestions. Our intervention may even have met with a curt, if not downright rude, response. Frustrating, isn’t it? Especially when you are pretty sure you know best.
If you have ever offered advice only for it to be completely ignored, there is likely to be one very simple reason – it wasn’t asked for. Advice is not like a gift. In this respect, people tend not to like surprises.
Some of us are more prone than others to dishing out advice whether it is sought after or not. Different personalities play a part here, for sure. But other factors such as seniority, experience and perceived expertise are important factors, too. As a manager, you might feel it is part of your job description to offer advice to colleagues under your charge.
Similarly, it is easy for long-serving employees to feel it is their duty to share the wisdom of their years with co-workers who are greener about the gills, for the future good of the company, of course. And if you specialise in a particular area – if you’re the IT person, or the compliance expert – you may feel an irresistible urge to wade in every time you hear others talking about your specialist subject.
Put your ego aside
Let’s spin these circumstances around. How do we all feel when a manager is constantly on our shoulder, telling us how to do the obvious? When we were the sprightly young things on the team, what did we think about the old hacks who started every other sentence with “If I were you…”? What do we all think about so-called experts who are only too eager to bore us with their knowledge?
The problem with unsolicited advice is that it can easily come across as condescending, patronising and belittling. When someone starts to tell you how to do something when you haven’t asked for help, there is an unspoken assumption underlying it – you don’t know what you are doing, they know best. Naturally, that rubs people up the wrong way, especially when you know full well you do know what you are doing.
Of course, as a leader there are times when you do have to intervene – you might spot someone making a mistake that will only get harder to put right if it is left unaddressed, or you might see a colleague who is clearly struggling but for one reason or another does not want to ask for help.
But these are special circumstances, the exceptions rather than the rule. Part of the skill of good management is learning to read people and recognise the signs when you should step in, whether they ask for help directly or not. Otherwise, no matter how well meaning your advice is, keep it to yourself until it is sought. Because another critical skill in effective leadership is learning to put your ego aside and trust people.