Taming the Advice Monster

Despite the title setting off a self help gag reflex the Coaching Habit by Michael Stanier isn’t one of those books. Six months after reading it, I still reference it and use its concepts to guide my conversations at work.

The advice monster

We tend to think of managers as the coach in American sports movies and the locker room pep talk as their defining moment. It’s always about them, their words, their charisma, them leading the team.

The Coaching Habit is about uprooting that tendency, which it calls the advice monster. In short: stop talking so much when you have one-on-one meetings with junior coworkers, stop giving so much advice, and stop trying to solve and meddle in every problem.

My background as an English teacher reinforces this concept. More teacher talk time means that learners aren’t speaking. They’re learning about English without actually learning English. The role of an English teacher is to create conditions that lend themselves to self discovery.

Similarly, the role of a manager is to help junior colleagues discover solutions to their own blockers. The right questions, a bit of prodding and not jumping in as the advice monster gives your mentees the space to think for themselves.

To quote the book directly:

The seemingly simple behaviour change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult. You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be “adding value” and you’ve the added bonus of staying in control of the situation. On the other hand, when you’re asking questions, you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. That’s called “empowering”).

More than any of the seven specific questions that Stanier offers, the habit of being a bit slower to speak and not as quick to give advice is what I took away from this book.

A dash of transactional analysis

Another thing to watch out for is the desire to swoop in as the Rescuer of Karpman’s drama triangle.

It’s so easy to fall into this paradigm: I’m going to save my direct report from some Big Bad Problem by swooping in with my sage advice. This doesn’t allow them to grow. Instead, you want to approach any issue as two mature adults working out a solution together.

When you step away from a Rescuer-Victim relationship, you’re empowering your mentee to grow.

Staying focused

A quick and focused one-on-one is a powerful tool (think 15 minutes, not marathon Zoom meetings). Stanier’s advice is staying focused.

Practical applications

None of this is to deny that as a mentor, manager or leader you have hard skills and knowledge you should be transferring to others. Instead, the goal of the Coaching Habit is to change your approach to leading and transferring knowledge.

It’s about removing yourself as the locus of attention. Yes, you’re still there to help when needed, but that’s a rare part of your roll. Most of your time should be invested in helping mentees fix their own problems and growing independently.

I find that a well structured one-on-one has me doing less than 20% of the talking. I usually send out questions ahead of time so there’s some focus instead of a rambling stream of consciousness. When mentees go through the questions and put in some time for reflection, they come to much the same conclusion as I would have. Because they are doing the talking and reflecting, it’s a lesson they’ll remember rather being talked at by a corporate talking head.

The book every manager should read

This is one of the few books that anyone in any sort of mentorship capacity should read. It’ll take a day to get through, but the general themes will stick with you and shape how you work.

The workplace would be a vastly different place if managing was synonymous with empathy, active listening and empowering others to grow. We’ve all had enough half-time pep talks.