Have you ever received unsolicited, off-target advice? Some people just instinctually offer solutions when they see someone in need. But what if their understanding of what's wrong is, quite frankly, wrong? Should you politely listen, or can you help them help you?
Consider John, an account executive who is contemplating how to expand into a new market segment -- one that is wrought with regulatory challenges. With a puzzled look on his face, he walks past Samantha, who asks, "Are you okay?" John responds, "Not really, I'm trying to figure out how to gain access for more of our products into Latin America." Samantha immediately runs to her office and returns with a 100-page analytical report detailing the region. She then spends the next ten minutes going over a how-to guide on conducting market research. Out of respect to Samantha, John patiently listens. But despite her good intentions, Samantha's input is counterproductive. John might have benefited from Samantha's time if she had focused on solving his regulatory conundrum. Instead, John walks away feeling even more frustrated and perplexed.
This is not an uncommon scenario, especially in a culture of instantaneous communication. We've been programmed to respond quickly, but perhaps not thoughtfully, to questions. While we may genuinely want to help, we don't have the time to probe, brainstorm, and engage in dialogue to explore the core issues of a problem. Instead, we politely give an off-the-cuff response that often results in the kind of well-intentioned, yet irrelevant advice that was given in the example above.
The most dysfunctional consequence of this pattern is that colleagues who genuinely need advice on an issue will stop asking for it. When the input they receive is repeatedly wrong, they unconsciously begin to dismiss the value of others' input. This creates an individualistic culture where people try to solve problems in isolation without the benefit of multiple perspectives.
If you find that you often receive unhelpful help, here are several ideas could increase your odds of getting good input.
Target your requests. Instead of asking whoever is available, intentionally target certain individuals. Create a list of people who have access to resources, information, and relevant experience about your problem. Expand your list to include friends and colleagues who tend to challenge the norm and see the world differently. Make a point of including people who are likely to have useful views but you might hesitate to approach because you think they are too busy or wouldn't be interested.
Frame your question. Before asking for input, figure out what you really need: What kind of advice are you looking for? What information would be useful? Are there gaps in your thinking? Then consider how to frame your question so that you solicit the right advice.
Redirect the conversation. If the person offering advice jumps to conclusions, be prepared to redirect them. Most people will not be offended if you politely refocus them. For instance, had John interrupted Samantha's lecture on market research by saying, "The issue isn't our understanding of the market, it's how to deal with the area's regulatory restrictions. That's where I could use some help," Samantha could have spent the next ten minutes firing off some useful ideas.
Often people try to help but miss the mark. If you really want quality input, don't shrug your shoulders and walk away frustrated. Take the lead in getting the help you need. By carefully targeting the sources of help, framing questions more sharply, and keeping the conversation on topic, you're more likely to benefit from reaching out to others -- and they will feel better about being able to help you.
What techniques have you used to secure helpful advice?
This post was coauthored with Holly Newman, a consultant with Schaffer Consulting, where she focuses on large-scale transformational change and performance improvement initiatives. She holds a Masters degree in Organizational Psychology from Teachers College Columbia University.
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.