The Four Kinds of Advice
June 23, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

At Communispond, we’re in the business of helping people and organizations achieve effective communication. And we continually encounter the realization that effective communication is about more than clarity and speaking well. It is also about conveying messages that are useful and that are acted on. 

What is the most common type of managerial communication in a collaborative organization? I think it’s advice. As a manager, your primary activity is giving and receiving advice, so part of mastering effective communication is learning how to do that. You don’t have to look much further than current headlines to see what happens when the managers in an organization lack the skills of giving or getting advice.

Fortunately, there is actually research on giving advice that we can all learn from. In a 2010 paper, Silvia Bonaccio and Reshad S. Dalal of George Mason University showed that, contrary to the model used in most research, advice does not merely consist of recommending which alternative a decision maker should choose. (The link connects to an abstract of the article. The original paper is behind a paywall, but there’s a practical and accessible discussion of their work in this article.) Bonaccio and Dalal found there are four kinds of advice: 

  1. which alternative to choose (“you should do this…”)
  2. which alternative to avoid (“you should not do this…”)
  3. how to make the decision (“first, list the pros and cons for each alternative…”)
  4. information about the alternatives (“here’s what’s likely to happen if you choose A, and here’s what’s likely to happen if you choose B…”). 

They pointed out that the last one, information about alternatives, is the one decision makers most prefer to receive, despite being the least studied. Like the other three types, it provides information, but it also leaves the decision maker with the most autonomy in the final judgment. This suggests to me an important idea about effective communication in business.

Whether you are advising a subordinate on how to handle a task, a superior on how to make a decision, a customer on which product to buy, or a colleague on how to approach a problem, your advisee will find it easiest to accept and use advice that is packaged as information about the alternatives.

What about if you’re in the position of receiving advice? Effective communication is as much about listening to and making use of messages as it is about preparing and sending them. Presuming that you’re not just looking for cover (which is a shabby but common reason for seeking advice), be alert to the possibility that you will gravitate to the type of advice that is information about alternatives because it indulges your desire for autonomy. Just because it indulges you, however, does not mean it will lead you to the best decision. Just as you do in internet research, use the context (who is advising you? what are their motives?) to evaluate the advice. 

The next time you’re asked for advice, your first impulse will likely be to tell your advisee which alternative to choose. Don’t act on your first impulse. Give some thought to how you can offer your advisee information about the alternatives. You may even find that in thinking through the alternatives in order to present them, there is a better course of action than you first thought.