Seeking and giving advice are central to effective leadership and decision-making. Yet managers seldom view them as practical skills they can learn and improve. Receiving guidance is often seen as the passive consumption of wisdom. And advising is typically treated as a matter of “good judgment”—you either have it or you don’t—rather than a competency to be mastered.
When the exchange is done well, people on both sides of the table benefit. Those who are truly open to guidance (and not just looking for validation) develop better solutions to problems than they would have on their own. They add nuance and texture to their thinking—and, research shows, they can overcome cognitive biases, self-serving rationales, and other flaws in their logic. Those who give advice effectively wield soft influence—they shape important decisions while empowering others to act. As engaged listeners, they can also learn a lot from the problems that people bring them. And the rule of reciprocity is a powerful binding force: Providing expert advice often creates an implicit debt that recipients will want to repay.
But advice seekers and givers must clear significant hurdles, such as a deeply ingrained tendency to prefer their own opinions, irrespective of their merit, and the fact that careful listening is hard, time-consuming work. The whole interaction is a subtle and intricate art. On both sides it requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, restraint, diplomacy, and patience. The process can derail in many ways, and getting it wrong can have damaging consequences—misunderstanding and frustration, decision gridlock, subpar solutions, frayed relationships, and thwarted personal development—with substantial costs to individuals and their organizations.
Because these essential skills are assumed to emerge organically, they’re rarely taught; but we’ve found that they can be learned and applied to great effect. So we’ve drawn on extensive research (ours and others’) to identify the most common obstacles and some practical guidelines for getting past them. Though heavily disguised, the examples in this article are based on interviewees’ real experiences in a range of settings. Of course, advice takes different forms in different circumstances. Coaching and mentoring are covered extensively elsewhere, so here we focus on situations that involve big, risky, or emotionally charged decisions—those in which you might consult with someone multiple times—because leaders struggle with such decisions and must learn to handle them well.