Today’s guest on The 21st Century Creative is Michael Bungay Stanier, a returning guest whose interview way back in Season 1 proved very popular. And his book The Coaching Habit turned out to be even more popular, as it went on to sell three quarters of a million copies.
Michael is back with some excellent advice on avoiding The Advice Trap, which is also the title of his new book. So this is a great conversation to help you become a better communicator or leader – whether or not leadership is in your job title.
This is the final episode of Season 5, which means it is also Episode 50 of the podcast. So in the first part of the show I reflect on what I’ve learned and the relationships I’ve made in the course of making 50 episodes.
It’s been a lot of fun and I’m very grateful for all the support I’ve had along the way, from my amazing guests and the 21st Century Creative team – with design from Irene Hoffman, music from Javier Weyler, who also does the sound production, with Alejandro Lovera, at Breaking Waves, and transcript and show notes edited by Alexandra Amor.
And I also want to thank you, for listening (or reading the transcripts), sharing and reviewing the show, and for supporting the show on Patreon.
If you want to be kept informed of progress on Season 6, I’ll be sharing updates from behind the scenes with the Patreon members, so you’re welcome to join us.
In the coaching segment of this week’s episode, I issue a warning that will hopefully prevent your next brilliant idea from vanishing into thin air: ideas are leprechauns.
Michael Bungay Stanier
Michael Bungay Stanier was one of the very first guests on the 21st Century Creative podcast, way back in Season 1, when he shared insights on how to be a better leader and coach for creative teams, based on his book The Coaching Habit.
In turn, the book was based on the many years that Michael and his team at Box of Crayons spent helping companies use coaching to transform their culture and unleash the creativity of their employees.
Michael had published The Coaching Habit himself, having failed to convince a string of publishers to take it on. Well, there must have been plenty of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the offices of those publishers, when the book went on to sell over three quarters of a million copies!
It’s now firmly established as a modern management classic, and it’s one of the books I buy regularly for my coaching clients who are creative directors or agency owners.
Michael has now followed up with a new book The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever.
In this one, he tackles one of the biggest obstacles we all face when we try to help someone else: The Advice Monster.
This is the part of us that can’t resist jumping in and offering well-intentioned advice, before we’ve fully understood the problem, and which is oblivious to the effect it can have on the person we’re supposed to be helping.
In this conversation Michael explains why the Advice Monster is such a problem and how it not only disempowers and demotivates people around us, it also creates stress and overload for us too.
If you’re the leader of a creative team you’ll find this interview an invaluable source of insight and practical advice on getting out of your own way in order to serve your team better.
And even if you’re not in an official leadership position, you will gain some important insights into how to change a habit that doesn’t serve you. Michael’s words may also help you discover more opportunities than you had noticed to step forward and lead people in a more creative direction.
For a questionnaire on how to identify your Advice Monster visit TheAdviceTrap.com.
And at Michael’s website you can access The Year of Living Brilliantly, a year-long no cost course from 52 great teachers.
You can follow Michael on Instagram @mbs_works
Michael Bungay Stanier interview transcript
MARK: Michael, welcome back to the show.
MICHAEL: Mark, it is always a pleasure to hear your mellifluous British accent echoing in my ears.
MARK: Great. Last time we spoke, it was way back in season one of The 21st Century Creative. And we were then talking about your book, The Coaching Habit, which is a great guide for leaders on how to use coaching as a way of leadership, a style of management, and it’s particularly good, as we focused on in that conversation, at unleashing the creativity in their teams. And you have a new book out now, The Advice Trap, which zooms in on one topic that we touched on in that previous conversation. And that is the pitfalls of giving advice.
Why pick this topic for the new book?
MICHAEL: It’s a lovely question. Perfect start for me. So thanks, Mark. The Coaching Habit was this amazing success as a book and with this audience who are people who create, who engage in that work, they’ll perhaps appreciate this more than some other audiences. I self-published the book, The Coaching Habit, after spending three or four years trying to get a publishing house to be interested in it. And I just couldn’t. Eventually, I got to this point, where it was like, ‘Okay, I’m doing it myself. I can’t take it anymore.’ And the book’s gone on, and it’s hit bestseller lists, and it’s sold close to three-quarters of a million copies now, it’s really been this phenomenon that is both thrilling and slightly daunting.
I get a lot of emails of people going, ‘This has been a book that’s changed my way to thinking about leadership, it’s demystified this whole idea of what coaching is because it’s not some sort of weird black box thing. It’s actually how do you sustain your curiosity?’ And at the same time for all those emails of people I’m getting that are people being very enthusiastic, there’s part of me that knows of the 750,000 copies out in the world that has not shifted everybody’s behavior.
And what I wanted to do is write a companion book that went a little deeper into what does it actually take to change your behavior to stay curious a little bit longer? In The Coaching Habit we start off with the first chapter, which is about habit-building, and that’s a really useful science-based approach to behavior change, but it’s often not enough. It’s not enough just to know the science and the process of building habits, you’ve got to go a little deeper, for some of us anyway, to think about changing our behavior. And that’s what I was trying to do with this book. So it’s a denser book. It’s still hopefully got a lightness and a humor to it and a practicality to it. But it tackles a trickier subject, which is: how do you change your behavior when changing your behavior is hard?
We’re recording this now, Mark, in early January, so there’s a whole New Year’s resolution thing that’s just happened. We’ve all had that moment where you go, ‘Here’s my New Year’s resolution. This year for sure I am going to write the book, call my mother, love my kids, go to the gym, eat less bread, eat more vegetables,’ all of that sort of stuff and we keep falling off that train. And this book gets into some of the mechanics around how do you change your behavior when it’s more than just expressing a good intention?
MARK: Great. Before we get into the how-to, because you’ve got some really great ideas on this, I really want to just home in on well, what is the advice trap, and why should I avoid it?
And who we’re speaking to really today is somebody who has got responsibility for leading a team, and with the audience, with this podcast, it will be a creative team of some kind, maybe a creative director but someone who’s got that role to inspire and get the best out of people. And I’m also thinking this is likely to be a highly creative person in their own right because it’s usually the senior creative who gets promoted to be creative director and so on.
What is this advice trap of which you speak?
MICHAEL: The starting point is to say that look, this is not Michael saying never give advice or all advice is bad, because obviously, that’s a ludicrous statement. And if you think that that’s what I’m trying to push here, then we all lose. The problem isn’t advice. The problem is when giving advice becomes your default mode. It is your kind of deep, ingrained way of reacting to most situations. And for most of us, that’s what we have. Somebody starts talking, and even though they’re telling you about a complex situation involving people you don’t really know, in a context you don’t fully understand involving technical specifications that you don’t entirely grasp, after about 10 seconds, you’re like, ‘I think I’ve got some initial ideas of what you should be doing here.’
What kills us is the advice-giving habit, that default response that when somebody starts talking, I tend to jump in and start trying to offer up ideas, suggestions, opinions, solutions, all of that sort of stuff. So that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how does it shift? How do we shift that habit that doesn’t serve us? And it doesn’t serve us in three different ways. The first is that so often, we are trying to solve the wrong problem because we get seduced into thinking that the first challenge that shows up is the real challenge. And truthfully it almost never is.
And, this is such an important discipline for creatives and leaders of creatives, and secretly in my heart, I’m like, ‘But surely you people, you know not to fall for that old trick of thinking that the first thing is the real thing?’ But the truth is, we all fall for it. We fall for it all the time. So that’s the first of three reasons why advice-giving as a default reaction is not very useful.
Here’s the second reason. Your advice is not nearly as good as you think it is. And part of you knows this because if you think of all the advice you get offered on a regular basis, all the solutions that get presented to you, and how little you think of them and how little you take those up.
Well, the same is true about you. And if you doubt me, there’s 1,000 TED videos on cognitive biases that just show how bad our advice typically is, particularly if we think our advice is actually good most of the time! So that’s the first two. So here you’re merely just wasting people’s time and life, and resources, and energy.
But the third piece goes a little deeper. And it cuts both ways. If you are on the constant end of a stream of advice and a stream of solutions, you are getting a message that you’re not good enough to solve this and fix this by yourself, that you don’t have the chops. And in fact, you’re being trained to be dependent and useless.
So if you’re that leader, you’re actually training people to be overly dependent and less creative and autonomous and self-sufficient than they might be. But there’s a price you pay, if you are the advice-giver all the time. Because put aside for a moment, your disempowering behavior and put aside for a moment that you’re becoming a bottleneck to your own team. That weight you carry, that responsibility of needing to have all the answers, to have the solutions, to save everybody, to save the situation is overwhelming and exhausting and frustrating. So, like I say, advice itself is not bad per se, but having this advice-giving habit, AGH, ‘Advice-Giving Habit’ is what can really drag you down.
MARK: Well, that’s a great summary, Michael of the hidden downside, really, because in the moment, it’s so tempting, isn’t it? particularly if you’re like you or me who habitually come up with brilliant ideas, at least…
MICHAEL: Of course. Our ideas are brilliant!
MARK: It’s so easy, when you get that rush of enthusiasm and you think, ‘Oh, this is how I would do it.’ And particularly, certainly in my experience, and I’m sure you’ve encountered this too, if you’re dealing with, say a creative director or somebody who has been rewarded and promoted for being the best creative in the room in many points in their career, their ideas generally are pretty good.
But there’s two other things that you’ve really hit on: one, even if your idea is above average and, let’s go with the cognitive bias for a moment, A, you’re still disempowering your team, you’re teaching them, ‘You’re not good enough, and you’re never going to be as good as I am.’
And also, there’s that weight of pressure, which actually doesn’t make anyone any more creative beyond a certain point if everyone’s looking to you all the time. You don’t have to be an egomaniac, I think it helps. I mean we’ve all come across leaders who love to see themselves as the fount of all wisdom and creativity. But even if not, there is a natural temptation to think, ‘My gosh, if I’m responsible for the creative team, I’ve got to help come up with the ideas.’
But what I’m hearing from you is it’s really that you’re there to help the team come up with better ideas, for them to perform better, even if they might do it differently to you.
MICHAEL: Exactly. If you reframe your job, as, ‘My job isn’t to have the great ideas, my job is to make sure that we’re working on the right challenges,’ honestly, trying to figure out what the real challenge is is a much more nuanced, strategic, tricky challenge. And if you’re willing to take that and go, ‘I’m going to make sure that what we’re working on is the stuff that matters.’ That’s a much more powerful leadership stance than to be the person who goes, ‘Look, I can come up with faster, better, or often lots of good ideas.’ That keeps me reliving past glories and disempowers my own team.
I saw Alan Mullaly speak about a year ago. If you don’t know that name, he was the first CEO of Ford that wasn’t somebody of the Ford family. And they resorted to hiring him because, at the time, Ford was in freefall. They were losing, I think it was like, $4 billion a year, maybe it was more than that. It was just a vast amount of money, so vast I can barely get my head around it.
MARK: Yeah. Enough to make them prioritize it!
MICHAEL: Yeah. Enough to go, ‘Look, we’re in crisis here. If we don’t stop the bleeding, we die as a company.’ And Mullaly, when he talks about assuming this leadership position, every week, they’d have their weekly check in and he’d have all of his key direct reports and their direct reports in a room and they’d go through each one of the key drivers of success for Ford. It’s part of their strategic plan.
And it was a simple process. It was like green if things were going well, yellow if you could see some potential flaws coming, and red if things had kind of gone off the rails. And the first time he does it, it’s green across the board. He says nothing. Second time he does it, it’s green across the board. And bear in mind, this is a company that’s losing $1 billion a week. Third time he does it, it’s green across the board. And he’s like, ‘Well, this is curious, because if everything’s going so well, why are things going so badly?’
MARK: I’d hate to see it when they’re going badly!
MICHAEL: And finally, he got to a point where somebody put up something that was orange, or yellow. And he was like, ‘Brilliant.’ And what he didn’t do, which is what people expected him to do, was to leap in and go, ‘And here’s how we’re going to fix this.’
MICHAEL: And can you imagine, if there’s ever a temptation to try and fix something, it’s when your job is on the line, when your company is losing a trillion dollars. But I heard him say very specifically, he said, ‘Look, what I know is that even if I have the right challenge, I know we’re working on the right thing. Even if I have the very best idea, it doesn’t behoove me as a leader to share that idea because the price I pay for having the right idea, the best idea, is too great for me, is too great from my organization, and too great for my team.’
And I figure this is Alan Mullaly, CEO of an enormous company in a conservative industry, who’s willing to have that discipline. I think that’s the discipline that should kind of echo through all of our organizations and all of our work. So if you’re a senior creative director or something else, it’s a discipline of leadership.
MARK: Isn’t that a great phrase to go away and reflect on, ‘The price I pay for having the best idea in the room.’ It’s the complete opposite of the way you would normally look at it.
MICHAEL: Right, because here’s the thing, and everybody knows this, they just hope it doesn’t somehow apply to them. When the boss has the idea, the oxygen gets sucked out of the room because nobody goes, ‘Yeah, it’s a pretty good idea but we’re not going to do that, Boss.’ Everybody goes, ‘That’s actually a really great idea. I love that idea. I’m writing your idea down, Boss, because I love it so much. You know what, we’re just going to go with that because it’s your idea. It’s amazing. You’re amazing. I’m amazing for working for you.’ And you lose so much.
This isn’t to say that there’s not a place for you having the advice or giving the solution or having the idea. It’s when it becomes your default response. It becomes your advice-giving habit. That’s when the damage gets done. And what I’ve found and what I’ve noticed, and you probably have seen this too, Mark, is that actually, the more you don’t give the idea, the more you realize that you don’t need to give the idea. Success breeds success.
MARK: Great. So tell us more about this, Michael, and maybe if we can think about what can I gain by deliberately not having the best idea in the room or deliberately withholding my idea and creating a space where other people can put forward theirs?
Tell us about how this approach to leadership looks.
MICHAEL: Well, let me ask you. I’m doing my coaching and you see what I’m doing…
MARK: There’s a coach on the podcast and the roles get reversed!
MICHAEL: It’s a nightmare! What do you see as the benefits if you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I’ve seen this before. I’ve got a killer good idea.’ But rather than me offering up first I’m just going to wait a little bit and ask them, ‘So, hey, what do you see the challenge as? What ideas do you have around this?’
What are the benefits that immediately come to mind for you, Mark?
MARK: Well, in a way this is easy for me because it’s what I choose to do all day is ask questions. But to me what I love is just when a client comes up with the unexpected. When they come up with something that I could never have thought of, and it just makes the whole conversation pop. And it’s empowering and it’s exciting for both of us. Because I do feel that I’ve made some contribution to that by asking the question, by framing the conversation in such a way that we could focus on it. But there’s a real joy for me and this is a big reason why I’m a coach, in just seeing what somebody comes up with when you create the opportunity.
MICHAEL: For me, it’s about going, ‘What’s the bigger game we’re playing here?’ And there’s a short-term game and a longer-term game. The short-term game is getting the solution to the problem at hand and making sure it’s as good as we can make it be. The longer-term plan is building a team of people who are creative and courageous and self-sufficient and autonomous so that you’re surrounded by people who you’re like, ‘These people are better than I am.’ It is terrifying and amazing at the same time. You know that that saying, A people hire A people, B people hire C people. What if you were the person who built A people?
I’ve just been reading Robert Greenleaf’s book Servant Leadership, and it’s 40 years old now and it reads like a book that’s 40 years old. But the concept is so powerful, which is to say, ‘Look, your job as a leader, your primary job as a leader, is to be of service.’ Everybody goes, ‘Yeah, but I think I do that,’ and I’m like, ‘Do you? Do you really?’ And one of the ways of measuring it is like ‘Are people better off after you’ve worked with them?’
And that willingness to say – ‘Look, the bigger game I’m playing here is to make sure that this person gets better, smarter, bolder, more courageous in the work they do. And secondarily, to make sure that we have some great ideas to solve this problem.’ – allows you just to shift the way that you get this to say, ‘Look, I’m not saying I’m not going to contribute my ideas to this conversation, I’m just going to see if I can stay curious a little bit longer.’
In fact, this is the definition that we write about in both the books. And we call it as a definition of coaching, but you don’t even have to call it coaching, just call it some sort of form of leadership, which is: can you stay curious a little bit longer? Can you rush to action and advice-giving a little bit more slowly? And that has built into it a permission to give advice and a permission to get things done. It just says, ‘Can you just wait a bit?’ Not months, not weeks, not days, I would take 180 seconds, quite frankly, if people could stay curious a little bit longer, that would be a perfect start.
MARK: And that little word ‘just’ is doing a lot of work here, isn’t it? Because it can be so tempting to charge in. And maybe this gets to the heart of what you talked about in the book around easy change versus hard change. Because I think probably we’ve established this is a tough thing to do. And most of us do more of it than we should do or even than we’re conscious of doing.
Could you open that up a bit for us?
MICHAEL: I think that’s actually the key insight, which is, more than we’re conscious of doing. Because pretty much everybody who’s listening to this podcast is nodding their head at the moment going, ‘Yeah, well, I agree with this. How come my behavior doesn’t align with what in theory my belief around leadership is?’ And easy change and hard change, this is my language, my translation of a concept I take from a leadership writer called Ron Heifetz. And Heifetz is an academic so their work is always a little shrouded in big words rather than small words. Heifetz gave me anyway the concept of technical change versus adaptive change, which I then rechristened ‘easy change versus hard change.’
Easy change, we’re all really good at. It’s when you go, ‘I need to learn this new thing.’ So you pick up a book, or you hear a podcast, or you watch a video, and you start tinkering and practicing a bit and you get the hang of the basics pretty quickly and then you practice some more and you move from being consciously incompetent to consciously competent, and you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s good. I get it. I’m pretty smart at this.’ So anytime you get a new phone or anytime you learn a new piece of technology or whatever it might be, even anytime you go into a new restaurant, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got the hang of this.’
And we’re fine at easy change. It happens all the time. Hard change is trickier. Hard change is when the challenge seems somehow impossible for you to grasp. And we’ve all had this, we all have our version of what hard change looks like. It’s, you’ve read all the books, and you’ve watched all the videos, and you’ve gone to the TED talk, and you’ve done all you can, and for some reason, it’s proved elusive, that shift of behavior that you’re looking for as a result of having learned this stuff. And it turns out with hard change, what’s required is not just knowledge, it requires a kind of rewiring of how you think about yourself, how you show up in the world.
The difference, to make it metaphorical, easy change is like downloading an app. You’re like, ‘I need the app,’ you download the app, ‘I’ve got the app.’ Hard change is, ‘I need a new operating system.’ And that just takes a bit more time to get it loaded, get it replacing things, give you the underlying foundation that’s different. And I think and this comes back to your first question, which is like, so why did I write this book, The Advice Trap? It was the recognition that for some people, being more coach-like, in other words, staying curious a little bit longer, was easy change. They’re like, ‘Oh, now I’ve got the seven questions that you talked about in the book. I got it, this is fine. I totally know how to do this now and it’s already changing my life and I love that.’
But there’s a bunch of us who look at the questions and go, ‘I’ve read the book. I get the questions. For some reason I still give advice all the time. Why is that so hard?’ And tackling hard change is what’s at the heart of The Advice Trap book, which is to say, ‘Right. When it requires more than you just learning a few things, what does that involve?’ And then to tackle that, then to wrestle with that.
MARK: What does it involve specifically around advice? If I’m going to hold my hand up and say, ‘Okay, I do do this, I’m aware of it, and I want to change but it’s hard.’
What can I start to do?
MICHAEL: The invitation that I make in the book is to say, you know what, you need to start tackling your Advice Monster. We all have this Advice Monster inside us; as soon as somebody starts talking to you, your Advice Monster kind of looms up out of the dark and goes, ‘Oh, Mark, I’m going to add some value to this conversation. Yes, I am. Here I come!’ And recognizing that you’ve got an Advice Monster, and that you need to tame it is kind of this sideways way into going, ‘This is how I actually get to be curious a little bit longer.’
Part of the way into understanding this is to understand that the behavior you have at the moment, which we are framing as not as productive or as useful as you could be, which is the default giving advice, there are benefits to that behavior. In fact, they’re benefits that have served you really well in the past. So, in this context, when you’re a creative director, it has served you really well to be the person who has the really smart ideas. That’s why you got promoted. That’s why you’ve risen in the hierarchy. That’s why you have that reputation. It has served you well, it is just no longer serving you as well as you might like.
And so part of what getting down to the Advice Monster about is understanding, and this is a phrase that I take from my friend Mark Bowden, who, as an aside, has a wonderful website called Truth Plane. He talks about influence and nonverbal influence a lot. But he says, ‘Look, every choice you make has prizes and punishments.’ And what we’re doing here is we’re looking at the prizes and punishments of your advice-giving and inviting you to say, ‘Which one wins?’
Do you think the prizes you get from being the smart person who has the answer outweigh the punishments which is, ‘I disempower my team, I end up the bottleneck, I end up exhausted, I end up with impossible challenges.’ Because the Advice Monster has three personas. There’s Tell It, there is Save It, there’s Control It.
Tell It, look, you get to be the smart person, you get to have the advice you get to offer the solution, but you disempower people.
Save It, is that sense of, ‘Look, it’s my job to be responsible for everybody, to make sure nobody ever fails.’ So on the one hand you get to position yourself as the superhero and you have your fingers in all these pies. On the other hand, it’s exhausting and overwhelming and you’re forever stopping people from failing. So you’re stopping them from learning and you’re stopping people from growing. And you carry that burden that you can’t let anybody fail which is impossible.
And then Control It, the slipperiest of the three advice monsters is that sense of, ‘Look, the way you succeed is you never lose control. You’ve always got the big picture, you’re always keeping people safe.’ But the price you pay is like trying to protect the world against the future, not letting chaos in, not letting the possibilities in, and that sense of trying to control everything when surely we all know that so much of what we do and how we show up in this world is beyond our control. Beyond even our influence.
So when you get down to it, there’s this messy, difficult, complicated, rich, juicy place to go, ‘I’m trying to tame my Advice Monster. I’m trying to weigh up the prizes and punishments.’ And once I start seeing the price I pay for letting my Advice Monster loose, the opportunity arises to say, ‘Maybe this is how you get to shift your behavior.’
MARK: When you’re talking about, particularly the Control It, and having to let go of control to do something good. It just made me think sideways into other forms of creativity.
Mimi Khalvati my poetry teacher told me one day, ‘The trouble with this poem draft, Mark, is that you knew everything that was in it before you sat down to write it.’ I was like, ‘Ouch! Yes.’
MICHAEL: Part of what I love about this podcast and talking to this audience is, you know this stuff, you know the importance of letting in the input that allows you to have the rich output. If you have an entirely predictable input, your ideas grow predictable and stale and tedious and there’s no edge, there’s no growth, there’s no synchronicity, there’s no serendipity. You’ve got to let in the world to allow creativity to flourish. And you’ve got to figure out what you can let go of and what actually you need to hold on to. So you get that as a creative discipline.
What I’m saying is, it’s not enough just to bring that way of thinking to the brief you have from the client, what you’ve got to do is go, ‘Actually, I need to think about this in terms of how I show up and I lead the people who I lead and influence.’
MARK: Yeah, that’s great, Michael. And also, really, to home in on the dark side of the Advice Monster you have this…
It was a real, I don’t know, aha moment but for me, it really hit me in the solar plexus, when I read in the book, it says, ‘The Advice Monster believes you’re better than the other person.’
MICHAEL: Right. In that moment when your Advice Monster is loose, what you are saying is that other person is not good enough, smart enough, moral enough, experienced enough, fast enough, clever enough, intuitive enough to sort this out. So by the way, you’re just taking it back. So that piece of you one up you, you one down them, it’s a diminishing experience. But it diminishes you too. It doesn’t just say to the other person, ‘You’re not good enough.’ It says you don’t get to use your vulnerability and your empathy and your humility as a leadership tool. You’re using your answers as your armor.
In that moment where you let the Advice Monster loose, and again, just because I know you’ve heard it, but I’m going to say it again, not to say that no advice, it’s not to say never giving advice because there’s a place and a time for advice, it’s the default response, which is what happens when your advice wants to get loose. You diminish yourself and you diminish that other person. You keep both of you stuck in a way of operating that serves neither of you, certainly in the long term.
MARK: Okay, so let’s say that the penny is dropping for me. I’m really starting to see the downside of this for me personally, and creatively as well as for the rest of the team.
Can you give me some practical things that I could focus on changing day in, day out with my team?
MICHAEL: I’m a big believer of trying to set up habits. Because once you get the insight about the price you’re paying, now you get to kind of experiment and see, ‘Wow, let me try some things and see what I could do differently.’ I read this quote, nobody knows where it comes from but it’s a good one, it’s like, ‘You don’t rise to the challenge, you fall to the level of your training.’ And what habits are are just a commitment to a training in a way of behaving.
So I’m going to offer up two specific strategies that might be help for people. The first is to take ownership of the idea that your job is not to be the provider of fast and possibly wrong solutions, but to be the person who’s like, ‘I’m going to make sure that we’re working on the real challenge.’ And I have a very simple four-question script for people.
You go, ‘All right, Mark. Glad to have you here. I hear what you’re working on. Tell me, what do you think the real challenge is here for you?’
And then you’ll come up with an answer. I’ll go, ‘That’s brilliant. I love it. What else is a challenge here for you?’ And then I’ll go, ‘And what else is a challenge here for you?’ And then I’ll go, ‘All right, Mark, I get it. So now that you see all of that, what’s the real challenge here for you?’
And what will happen quickly and powerfully, is the focus of the conversation will shift and you’ll find yourself working on something that is deeper, more useful, that helps the other person learn as well as solves the client’s challenge that they’re facing. So that’s the first piece which is step in and own the position around, ‘Look, the way I’m of best service is to make sure that we’re working on the right thing and I’m going to use what’s the real challenge here for you to do that.’
MARK: And if I can just pop in and just underline the simplicity of the language you’re using here, Michael. ‘And what else?’ Those three words that pepper The Coaching Habit. I’ve bought The Coaching Habit for clients and they’ve come back and said, ’And what else?’ How hard does that work for me every day?!’
MICHAEL: Exactly. It does some heavy lifting, that question, if you choose to use it. And part of what’s brilliant about it is people don’t even hear it. They don’t even really recognize that you’ve asked them a question. What you’re doing is inviting them to stay in the place of curiosity and exploration. It’s a little piece of magic.
MARK: It’s just lubricating the conversation ever so slightly.
MARK: And repeating that, again, quite simple question, ‘What’s the real challenge for you there?’
MICHAEL: Yeah, you got it.
MARK: And you can ask that again and it sounds different the second time once you’ve unpacked some of the ‘what else?’ stuff, so. Okay, great.
What’s your second strategy, Michael?
MICHAEL: So the second strategy is a self-management tool to help protect against the seduction of somebody coming and going, ‘Hey, Mark, how do I… ?’ Because when that happens, your Advice Monster springs out of the dark going, ‘Look, they’re literally inviting me in here. It would be irresponsible not to give them the answer because they’ve asked for my help. And what are you doing? Are you saying that I shouldn’t be helpful? That sounds wrong.’
I’m not saying don’t be helpful. I am saying: can you slow down the rush to offer up solutions and move to action? And this is how you do it. Somebody comes into your office or pings you an email or whatever it might be and goes, ‘Hey, how do I do the thing?’ You go, ‘Hey, that’s a good question. And I’ve got some ideas on how to do the thing, but before I give you my ideas, and I will give them to you, I’m just curious to know what’s your first idea on how you tackle that?’
And they’ve always got a first idea. They’ve always had some initial thought. Then after they tell you, you go, ‘Brilliant. I love that. That could work. What else could you do?’ You see I’m using the ‘what else?’ question again. And you go, ‘Okay, what else could you do?’ And you go, ‘Great. This is wonderful. Is there anything else you could do here?’ And you go until you feel the creativity moment ebbing. And then if it’s appropriate, and you’ve got something to add, you go, ‘You’ve had great ideas. Let me add an idea or two of my own because I said I would,’ and you can offer up your thoughts or your opinions on it.
What you’re doing is you are not leaving them stuck, you have their back, you make sure that they’re going to go out with the best possible solution. You’re just inviting them to take the first crack at it. Because honestly, half the time they come up with all the ideas that you’re going to come up with anyway, they come up with better ideas than you’re going to come up with, and what it means is when you do add your idea, you’re truly adding value because you’re offering them the idea that they didn’t have. And it’s a reminder that you’re like, ‘I may be old, but I still got some chops here. I still have the ability to think differently around this.’
But this is a habit. I’ve practiced it for years so I’m really good at it now. But the habit, and this comes from the new habit forming from The Coaching Habit, which is like, when somebody says, ‘Hey, Michael, how do I… ?’ Instead of being triggered to start providing answers, I go, ‘Hey, Mark, great question. I’ve got some ideas. I’ll definitely share them with you. But before I give you my ideas, I’m curious to know what’s your first idea? And what else? And what else?’ So I think, Mark, if people take those two tactics away, they will find themselves shifting in terms of how much advice that they give.
MARK: I would really love to hear from any listeners who go away and just experiment with these two specific techniques, if you can come back and let us know how you get on. I think we could get some very interesting stories out of this, Michael.
MICHAEL: I would hope so. The stories that I hear regularly is, ‘Oh, that was easier than I thought.’ And I love that because what I really want is for people to realize that this approach, and we can call it coaching if you want, I tend to call it being more coach-like, it’s simple, but it’s difficult. It’s simple, because, as Mark said, look how simple these questions are. It’s difficult because you are unlearning. You’re doing hard change. But it can pay such dividends because not only does this benefit the person that you’re leading and influencing, it benefits you. You get to work less hard, you get to have more impact in your work and work less hard at the same time.
MARK: Sounds good to me. Michael, you’ve been really good at underlining the fact that you’re not saying giving advice is always a bad idea. And one thing I like about the book is towards the end, you offer some really good advice on how to give good advice.
So maybe we could wrap up by first of all saying when is it okay, when is it helpful to give advice and maybe some tips on how to do it well?
MICHAEL: Yeah. Well, there’s all sorts of times when it’s useful to give advice. And I guess what I’d invite the people listening into this conversation would be to say, okay, so work on the assumption that you shouldn’t lead with your advice and see how that goes. Even if it’s just one question you ask before you offer up your advice. But when the time comes to give advice, do it well. And the tips that I would offer include, first of all, are you sure that you’re offering advice to solve the right the problem? Or is there any chance that you’ve just been seduced into thinking that the first challenge is the real challenge?
Secondly, frame your advice as not necessarily being written in, like, Moses’ two stone tablets with the ten commandments as being absolutely infallible. It’s useful to frame it as, ‘Let me offer up a possibility.’ I do this a lot. I’m like, ‘Look, I might be wrong. This is my first guess. Here’s a stab in the dark. Here’s an idea that might work for you.’ There’s a lot of framing around there. ‘Take the advice, but don’t take it as an order. Don’t take it as, you know, some sort of infallible truth.’
And then the third thing that I’d offer up is check in and go, ‘Was that advice useful or not?’ This is actually again from The Coaching Habit, the learning question at the end of a conversation you go, ‘What was most useful and most valuable about this conversation right now?’ And check in about did that advice land? Did it seem useful? Maybe even check in how it plays out, because that way you get to fine-tune your understanding of which advice you offer up lands and which advice doesn’t land so much.
MARK: Great. Thank you, Michael, this has been a really good deep dive, I think, into one of the biggest pain points of leadership. And I think if you can really drill down into this and we spent a lot of time today on, was it the prizes and punishments and drilling down into the why and the cost-benefit of this, but actually, that’s the hard bit. But as Michael said, a lot of the techniques, once you get that, a lot of the techniques in themselves, they’re not rocket science, it’s just having the discipline.
MICHAEL: But coaching is easy.
MARK: I believe that.
MICHAEL: Really, coaching, I mean, pretty much in The Coaching Habit and then I do a recap in The Advice Trap of, you’ve got seven good questions. And ask them often, you’re going to be a legend. It’s just going, ‘What do you need to do to shift your behavior that you can actually put that into action?’
MARK: Great. Well, that sounds like a really good cue for your Creative Challenge, Michael. So this, obviously, this is a coaching conversation. And like all coaching conversations, and like all interviews on The 21st Century Creative, we end up with a Creative Challenge that my guest sets you the listener, which is something that you can go away and do that will help you get more of the prizes, the benefits of the theme of the interview. And is something that you can do within or at least get started on within seven days of listening to this conversation.
Michael, what challenge do you have for us today?
MICHAEL: I’ve got a two-part challenge. The first is simply start noticing your Advice Monster. Notice how quickly it is triggered when somebody starts telling you stuff. It can be at home with your partner or with your kids, it can be at work with your team, it can be at work with your boss, it can be talking to a client, but just start noticing how quickly you want to leap in and offer up the idea and offer up the solution. So that’s the first part. Because awareness is the start of it all.
If you want to go a little deeper, then the question I have for you is, so of those three different personas, Tell It, or Save It, or Control It, which Advice Monster feels most real to you, most loud to you? Which one is the one that shows up most often in the way that you behave?
Are you trying to be the person who has the answer every time? Are you feeling the weight of, ‘I’m responsible for everybody, I’ve got to save everybody?’ Or are you like, ‘I really just don’t like it when I lose control of a conversation or a situation or a meeting or the perspective of what’s going on.’ What do you think your deeper drive is? And if you’re curious, at theadvicetrap.com, we actually have a questionnaire that is a quick questionnaire. It’s not rigorously, brilliantly scientific, but it will give you a sense of where your bias might be towards which advice monster might be your advice monster. So if you’re curious about checking that out, you can go to theadvicetrap.com.
MARK: Brilliant. Thank you, Michael. I really would invite you to also check out the book, The Advice Trap. If you’ve read The Coaching Habit, then you should need no persuasion to do that. They make a great pair, the two books together. And I think going back on the topic of, earlier on, the question around awareness, I think this is a great book to read, firstly, if you’re aware that you give too much advice as a leader, and probably, secondly, even more so if you really think you don’t do this, then go and have a look at the book!
MICHAEL: Right, exactly! It’s perfect. I love that. Okay, that’s the perfect sales pitch, Mark. Whether you think you do or think you don’t give too much advice, this is the book you’ve been looking for.
MARK: Exactly. Well, feel free to use that in the campaign.
MICHAEL: Thank you.
MARK: Okay. So Michael, where should people go? Theadvicetrap.com, obviously go to the bookshops and get the book.
Anywhere else that they can go online to engage with you and your ideas and get some help for their organization?
MICHAEL: I am coming out of the shadows in social media, so I’m on LinkedIn and I’m starting to post a daily series called, ‘My Best Question.’ There’s a short video mostly around, look, here’s a really good question that you might want to use, and you might want to pick up and add to your repertoire. So you can find me on LinkedIn at Michael Bungay Stanier. You can find me on Instagram @mbs_works, and actually, the overall website is mbs.works. So feel free to check out any of those.
MARK: Great. And as usual, I will make sure these are all in the show notes for you.
MICHAEL: Okay. Thank you, Mark.
MARK: Michael, thank you. As always, it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. I learn something new every time and I know my listeners do. So thank you so much for being with us today.
MICHAEL: Mark, it’s a pleasure. I do feel, I mean, we’ve known each other for 10, 15 years now, quite a long time. So it’s great to have that connection and have these conversations.
About The 21st Century Creative podcast
Each episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast features an interview with an outstanding creator in the arts or creative industries.
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