Solicited advice offers employees opportunities to learn and improve their performance. Unsolicited advice, however, will be rejected by employees, who perceive the advice as solely intended to benefit the advice-giver—by demonstrating superior knowledge, for example—and is therefore of little use.
One often-overlooked element of an organization’s success is sharing of advice— information with guidance or recommendations. Advice is clearly beneficial to the individuals receiving the advice, who can use it and learn from it, and thus improve their performance; as such, advice is also clearly beneficial to the organization’s performance as whole. Yet many employees are reluctant to ask for advice. One strategy to counter this reluctance is for organizations to find ways to provide more unsolicited advice to employees, thus eliminating the need to wait for the employees to reach out.
This strategy, however, can backfire, according to research from University College London and the University of Zurich. Unsolicited advice, this research reveals, is not always well-received by recipients of the advice, who will be wary of its usefulness, and whether it will actually help them learn or perform better.
The reasons for such wariness and scepticism may not be apparent. One can discern, with a little sensitivity, the issue with unsolicited help—someone coming in and taking over a task unasked, for example. Unsolicited help can clearly be taken as an attack on an individual’s autonomy. However, there is no loss of autonomy when it comes to advice: the individual is free to take the advice or not.
Why, then, is unsolicited advice so poorly received. The answer, according to the research, lies in the recipients’ negative perceptions of the motives behind the unsolicited advice. Because solicited advice was triggered by the recipients, the recipients see the advice as being offered for their benefit. When individuals suddenly receive unsolicited advice, on the other hand, they are likely to believe that the advice-givers are driven by their own self-interest. Perhaps the advice-givers are trying to show off, or trying to impress the recipients, or trying to demonstrate that the recipient is lacking in skills or knowledge. These perceived self-serving motives destroy the credibility of the advisor—and the advice.
The research was based on two field studies and an experiment. In the first field study, employees of three U.K. marketing agencies were asked to identify the co-workers who had offered advice in the past six months, whether the advice was solicited or unsolicited, whether the advice was offered to impress them or offered for their benefit, and, finally, whether they considered the advice useful. This study confirmed the link described above between solicitation, perceived motive, and perceived usefulness of the advice. Recipients were suspicious of the motives for the unsolicited advice and thus considered the advice of no use.
The second field study was conducted in real time, with participants—employees of a Dutch research organization—reporting daily over a period of 10 days on the advice received that day. The study also confirmed that the motives behind unsolicited advice were perceived as self-serving for the advisors, notably because the advisors wanted to show their superior knowledge or wanted to hinder the confidence of the recipient. The experimental study used hypothetical situations in which solicited or unsolicited advice was offered by either a close personal friend at work or a co-worker. This study revealed that: 1) even when advice is identical, perceived motivations of the advice-giver depend on whether the advice is solicited or unsolicited, which leads to assumptions about its usefulness and learning or performance benefits; and 2) friendships did not alter the different perceived motivations behind solicited or unsolicited advice.
Advice benefits individuals and their organizations. However, this research offers an important cautionary note to leaders who want to boost the amount of advice offered in their organizations. Offering unsolicited advice to employees will not result in the intended benefits. Employees will assume that such advice is not truly offered to help them and will therefore likely ignore the advice even advice from personal friends at work.
Any program to offer unsolicited advice, such as urging managers to provide such advice on a regular basis, must be approached carefully. Whatever the context, whenever unsolicited advice is offered, the positive motives for the advice must be clearly and unequivocally established. Otherwise, the advice will likely be ignored.
Blaine Landis’ profile at UCL School of Management
Colin Fisher’s profile at UCL School of Management
Jochen Menges’ profile at University of Zurich
How Employees React to Unsolicited and Solicited Advice in the Workplace: Implications for Using Advice, Learning, and Performance. Blaine Landis, Colin M. Fisher, and Jochen I. Menges. Journal of Applied Psychology (March 2022).
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