Seeking advice from multiple people? It could backfire on you.

We are always asked to seek a second or third opinion – about a medical procedure, career steps, or relationship decisions. For some of us that is enough. But some others need more advice. Does it really help to get more advice?

To explore this question, Harvard Business School conducted a series of studies to understand the interpersonal relationship between advisors and people seeking advice. Here is what they found.

People who were part of a group of advisors rated the advice seeker as less competent. They also indicated feeling offended by the advice seeker and were less interested in advising him in the future. Why? Each advisor thought that the seeker would act on their advice. This would add to their status, and enhance their image of being knowledgeable. So, when their suggestion wasn’t taken, they felt insecure, and distanced themselves from the advice seeker.

This is a common scenario – a group of 119 full-time employees was surveyed, and it was found that 58% consulted multiple advisors, and 52.9% ignored recommendations they had received. Given the interpersonal risk such advice-seeking behavior brings, what does it mean for you, if you’re looking for help?

  • Know why you’re seeking advice. Are you in the habit of asking people for their thoughts? Or do you really need guidance for a sticky work/ life problem? If it’s the former, you might leave people wondering whether you can solve your own problems or not. If you strongly need help, hone in on what is it that would be helpful for you.
  • Choose the right advisors. Instead of asking people at random, think hard about who can give you the most relevant information. Once you have identified 3-4 such advisors, consider how each of them would feel if their advice wasn’t used. If you think they are likely to be offended, consider finding other advisors who won’t take it personally, because your relationship with them is at stake here.
  • Set clear expectations. Usually, when we seek advice, we are looking to find different perspectives and then figure out our options. We make our own choices based on a pool of information. Let your advisors know that you’re just hoping to find multiple options, instead of saying that you need them to direct you. That way, they can remain detached, and not take it personally if you make a choice that differs from their suggestion.

Leveraging the wisdom of others helps us make better decisions. That’s why we have boards of advisors and mentors. But do it right so that the process of giving and seeking advice doesn’t reach a dead-end.

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