When we have a big decision to make—around a career move, a relationship, or a lifestyle change—we often turn to others who we believe have our best interests at heart. Your sister who thinks you should move to a new city, for example, or your partner who says you should leave your job.
While they might mean well, friends and family can unintentionally steer us wrong, according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant.
Here are three reasons why well-intentioned advice isn’t necessarily good advice, and what to consider before following it.
Reason 1: We ask those we know, rather than those in the know
You might think you turn to the most competent person for advice. But do you?
A study published in “The Journal of Experimental Psychology” tested this idea using data from the reality competition and TV show “The Voice.” It found that individuals were more likely to select not necessarily the most competent advisor, but the person who expressed high amounts of positivity toward them.
Let’s say you’re in negotiations for a job with a new startup. Rather than seek out a pro who knows the industry and demands of entrepreneurship, you ask your dad, a retired businessman. He advises you to tell them that you’re “considering other offers.” (You’re not.) It backfires. The startup says they’re looking for someone who wants to be there, and if you have other offers, maybe you should explore those instead. Ouch.
Before you act: Consider how much actual knowledge the source of advice has so you can discern loving support from sharp insight. This doesn’t mean you don’t run decisions by those who love you, but it does mean that you separate one kind of advice from another. Talking over your decision with your father might be something you’ve always done, but you can mentally label his advice as support without having to act on it.
Reason 2: We fail to filter out bias.
Even the smartest people you know might default to their own experience as the rule. That’s because when offering advice, we can fall into what sociologists call conversational narcissism, which means our advice becomes more reflective of our own experiences rather than what will work for someone else.
You’re weighing the pros and cons of taking an opportunity to move abroad, for example. A good friend who knows your industry, but has never left their home state, might have fears that influence their advice—and cause you to doubt something you would actually love.
Before you act: Rather than assume that all advice is neutral, recognize that it’s likely tinged with the person’s beliefs, fears, and experiences. You can still ask for and listen to advice, but take into account what might be informing that person’s perspective. For more tips check out the Cup of Calm blog “3 Tricks to Making Decisions.”
Reason 3: We let feelings of overwhelm cloud our judgment.
When you’re anxious, you’re less likely to notice someone’s personal bias or conflict of interest, according to Grant. Anxiety muddies the waters, negatively impacting our processing ability and self confidence, which in turn can make us more receptive to potentially bad advice—and distrustful of our own judgment.
Before you act: Give yourself some breathing room. Rather than ask everyone you know for advice in a panicked what-do-I-do state, take some time to sit quietly with the issue and find a sense of calm before reaching out. Not only will you have a clearer picture of what to do, but you also will be better able to discern which advice to disregard. These two Cup of Calm blogs can help as well: “Five Habits of Highly Calm People” and “How to Feel Calm Anytime, Anywhere.” Additionally, you can learn how to lessen anxiety with the meQ activity Challenge Your Anxious Thoughts.
Remember, the most useful advice, according to Grant, doesn’t always lay out exactly what to do. “It helps people see blind spots in their thinking,” he noted, “and clarify their priorities.”