In cleaning out decades’ worth of journals, letters, and reflections including those stored on both bits and bytes, I have identified several types of situations encountered over and over in my professional life. In this post, I describe one of them that I call the “You Had Better Save Yourself.”
The title is grounded in my response (either spoken or silent) to leaders who have rejected the advice of experts and then returned to the same experts to seek advice to solve the problem they exacerbated by rejecting the original advice.
The situation begins when a leader asks for advice. Typically, they ask the advice of those within the organization, including those who are supervised by the leader. If the leader has hired well, then those individuals have complementary knowledge which is greater than the leader’s. Advice is given, received, and understood.
Next, the leader makes a contrary decision, which the advice-givers recognize as being not what was advised.
Before the decision is implemented, the advice-givers remind the leader of what they counseled. The leader may recognize this fact, may spin their decision as actually consistent, or may dismiss the advice-givers as they are ignorant of other undisclosed circumstances. This usually ends with the advice-givers either stating or thinking, “we warned you.”
When the decision is implemented, it fails; often in the manner predicted by the advice-givers.
The leader, realizing the failure, returns to the advice-givers for solutions to the new and greater problems that arose when the original advice was ignored. Sometimes there is recognition by the leader the original advice was ignored, but that is unusual. Often the original advice is never acknowledged, or the leader blames others for failing to implement properly their doomed decisions.
The leader reacts negatively when the advice-givers are reluctant to participate further.
This pathway is one that I expect many will find familiar. I encountered it many times in my records, and I also find my patience with this situation has changed. When a younger professional, I sought to gain experience and to prove myself, so I often continued to engage leaders who had sought, then ignored, my advice. Those experiences were valuable and I am fortunate to have had them. As an older professional, I will sometimes continue to engage with leaders who sought, then rejected, my advice.
As an older professional I have less patience than I did previously. I have less time, so I am likely to be focused on new projects and will not be able to participate in your again—I probably have new friends with whom I am playing.
If you return to me and I respond with “I told you so,” I am going to pay attention to your response. If you become defensive, then I will assume you will continue to treat me with contempt and I will no longer engage with you on this problem. (You may have the authority to compel my engagement, but you cannot compel me to provide authentic advice. I am actually most likely to advise you to repeat your mistake.) If you can describe the circumstances that caused your first decision to fail, then I am likely to continue engaging you on this problem.
Leaders need to understand how this situation is understood by people whose advice is sought, then ignored:
You hired me because I have demonstrated the capacity to solve problems and create effective systems in other organizations.
- In asking my advice, you demonstrated the characteristics of effective leaders.
- In rejecting my advice, you demonstrated contempt for me and my expertise.
- When your decision failed, you demonstrated you lack the capacity I have.
- When you react badly to my decision to allow you to save yourself, you demonstrate your lack of empathy.