People Don’t Want to Be Blamed for Giving Bad Advice

Sometimes, when facing a hard decision in our career or in a relationship, we just want someone to tell us what to do. Or, if not tell us exactly what to do, at least to proactively assert ideas for what we may want to do.

But you’ll find that thoughtful advice-givers are sometimes reticent to proactively assert very much. Rather, they ask, “What do you want to do? What are you passionate about?” Then, once you express a preference, they figure out how they can help you realize your goal. Based on your existing inclinations, they’ll amplify what they see are the important things to keep in mind.

Why is this? One perhaps a non-obvious reason: People don’t want to be blamed if something goes wrong. If a person gets you thinking that the right move in life is to backpack around Asia for two months, or accept job XYZ, or go to grad school, and it doesn’t work out — you may (if unconsciously) blame them.

So if you ask for blue sky feedback — open ended advice on what you should do in your life  — be aware of risk aversion on the part of the advice giver, and perhaps make it easier for them by saying something like  “Don’t worry, I’m going to own this decision, be completely honest and throw out any idea that comes you.”

But, really, even with this qualifier, the open ended advice conversations like this only work if you know the other person really well and vice versa. In a majority of cases, proposing specific ideas and asking for specific reactions works best…


David Cohen recently posted about asking for introductions, and encouraged people to not ask him blue sky questions like, “Know any good investors for our company” but rather to request introductions to specific people. When you request an intro to a specific person, David can…

explain to [the person he’s introducing you to] that YOU thought of HIM for a specific reason, and are requesting that I introduce you to him. In this case, I’m merely facilitating an introduction that you requested. Socially, it’s pretty much expected of me that I would do this, and doing it as a double-opt in literally has no “cost” in terms of social currency associated with it.

In other words, there’s less downside risk to David if the meeting goes poorly. You asked for it; he just facilitated. Had HE been the one to suggest meeting a certain person, and the meeting goes poorly, he takes some of the blame. He’d quite understandably rather you request and he enable, instead of dreaming up who would be the best person to meet. Same principle as I discussed above.

But, it can be helpful when someone proactively recommends meeting someone you didn’t previously know about it. I’m sure David does this for close allies. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know…and you don’t know who you don’t know!

8 comments on “People Don’t Want to Be Blamed for Giving Bad Advice
  • I think the lack-of-specific advice on open ended questions is a better approach than the alternative: Giving specific advice when the right answer is ambiguous and unclear. Too many people feel compelled to say something to sound sage.

  • Interesting. Perhaps I overestimate the value of my own advice, because I rarely tell people what they want to hear (unless what they want to hear is as brilliant as my own advice :)).

  • I think people only occasionally benefit from positive advice. Perhaps we’d gain more by asking people for advice about what not to do instead of what to do. As Druin Burch noted, the most potent health advice for longevity in the last 60 years was negative advice: don’t smoke!

  • I, for one, tell people what I honestly think, and don’t hold back when I have ideas that they may benefit from. It’s hard enough to make good decisions without having to apply a discount factor to the advice you’ve received — quite a bit easier if you can take advice at face value.

    Also, “execution is everything” — if you like my idea enough to run with it but ultimately fail in some respect, I would not feel guilty nor accept much blame. At worst, you could say that we were both wrong in believing that the idea was a good one.

  • Where are these people who want someone to tell them what to do? My American experience has been that the “average” adult male in the US is a clod who’s nearly impervious to information, and probably watches FOX News to boot, wherein he finds all his prejudices confirmed, naturally.

    I can’t recall a woman ever asking me for advice, but if a guy does so, I’m immediately on guard, and wonder what his motive is. If he should seek guidance on a subject of which I have expertise, I will bet good money he’ll ignore it and quite likely is just waiting for my lips to stop moving so he can tell me how he’s gonna do it.

    Yes, it’s a Dilbert’s world out here. Lawyer, roughneck, or bum, they tend to be the same.
    So few use the active intelligence of their mind. Imagine their surprise when they get the invoice for services rendered (well, a guy can fantasize, can’t he?).;-)

  • Requests for “advice” come in two flavors: sounding board sessions and solicitations for help. Vagueness is common in the former – the person is testing how different ideas sound coming out of their mouth. Firm requests only come with the latter, once the person has set their course.

    Personally, I need to do more of the latter, less of the former.

  • I agree with your article, I had a professor in my masters program that refused to write letters of recommendation for anyone as he was afraid of being sued! Apparently a growing trend in recommending employees to give generic and neutral information to new employers when the call to ask about job performance. Craziness!

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