Reactions to Unsolicited Advice in the Workplace
Have you ever observed coworkers doing something imperfectly and thought about giving them a tip about how to do it better? Or have you blurted out advice during a meeting without waiting on someone else to ask for it first? When you offer unsolicited advice, you hope the recipient will take the information on board. But in our research, we discovered that all too often, unsolicited advice is discounted or ignored, and valuable information goes to waste, even when it comes from our friends and close contacts.
Of course, one way to avoid having your advice ignored is to offer it when someone asks for it. But studies show that people are reluctant to ask for advice: It can imply a dependence on the person giving the advice, a temporary hierarchy (lower status people tend to ask for advice from higher status people), or reveal to them or others who may be in the vicinity that you may not know something and need to ask for advice. These concerns can make it unlikely that people feel comfortable asking for advice.
Missteps in Trying to Give Advice
While there are situations where people do feel comfortable asking others for advice, if we want to ensure that people have timely information when they need to make decisions, understanding how people react to unsolicited advice is surely important knowledge to have.
Social psychologists have long been interested in attributions—how people think about the causes of others’ behavior. These attributions are central to how we make sense of others’ actions. And, these answers to the “why?” question are an important part of the puzzle to figuring out how people respond to unsolicited advice.
The first step in our research was to describe the many different attributions that people can have. We asked people to tell us about occasions when people gave them advice they asked for (solicited advice) and advice they did not ask for (unsolicited advice), and then to tell us why they felt the other person provided the advice. In the case of solicited advice, we can all probably figure out why people offered it—after all, we asked for it! Solicited advice often has a clear, observable trigger.
But unsolicited advice is trickier. It’s not always obvious why someone is giving us advice when we didn’t ask for it. Some of the attributions people made for unsolicited advice included:
- The advice-giver is attempting to take control of the situation
- The advice-giver is attempting to flaunt their knowledge in a particular area
- The advice-giver wants to genuinely benefit the recipient
- The advice-giver wants to hurt or hinder the confidence or performance of the recipient.
These attributions ranged from being self-serving (“I want to make myself look good”) to prosocial (“I want you to perform better on this task”), and as our research reveals, this distinction turns out to be critical for understanding how to navigate whether unsolicited advice will have positive impact. Unsolicited advice is more likely to be seen as self-serving, and this ruins its impact.
Here Are Some Tips
If you want your unsolicited advice to be used by the recipient in what they’re doing, then it’s best to frame it in a way that minimizes the likelihood they think you have a self-serving motive. You need to emphasize that you’re giving them advice to benefit them, not to benefit yourself. And there are many ways to do this. One way is to make sure people know you are available to be approached for advice (such as asking, “How are things going?” or other questions that convey a willingness to be supportive). Letting people know that you care about them can convey psychological safety and make people comfortable asking for advice, reducing the need to offer unsolicited advice in the first place.
Another strategy is to be self-deprecating when giving unsolicited advice. If you tell them about a time when you faced a similar situation and experienced a suboptimal outcome, you reduce the likelihood that you’re giving them unsolicited advice to make yourself look good.
You might also wonder whether it matters who the source of the advice is. And the answer is that unsolicited advice is often dismissed or discounted, even if the advice comes from someone we consider a close personal friend at work. This is an important tendency to keep in mind, because we often feel most comfortable with our close friends and may share unsolicited advice with them more frequently. But that does not make them immune to the tendency to perceive unsolicited advice as self-serving (and therefore not use it).
Using the strategies above can help you avoid these pervasive reactions to unsolicited advice.
For Further Reading
Bolino, M. C., & Grant, A. M. (2016). The bright side of being prosocial at work, and the dark side, too: A review and agenda for research on other-oriented motives, behavior, and impact in organizations. Academy of Management Annals, 10(1), 599–670. https://doi.org/10.1080/19416520.2016.1153260
Bonaccio, S., & Dalal, R. S. (2006). Advice taking and decision-making: An integrative literature review, and implications for the organizational sciences. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 101(2), 127–151. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.07.001
Deelstra, J. T., Peeters, M. C. W., Schaufeli, W. B., Stroebe, W., Zijlstra, F. R. H., & van Doornen, L. P. (2003). Receiving instrumental support at work: When help is not welcome. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), 324–331. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.88.2.324
Landis, B., Fisher, C., & Menges, J. (2021). How employees react to unsolicited and solicited advice in the workplace: Implications for using advice, learning, and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000876
Blaine Landis is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at University College London where he studies advice, personality, and social networks. He received his PhD from the University of Cambridge.
Colin M. Fisher is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at University College London where he studies team leadership, helping, and improvisation. He received his PhD from Harvard University.