How Much Weight Should You Give The Advice You’re Getting?

Written by Mike Shapiro | | March 16, 2017

We all learn from experience. Fortunately, there are two kinds: our own (the hard kind) and someone else’s (the easier kind).

That’s why we read books and articles, listen to podcasts and AMAs, join groups and ask for help from a wide range of advice-givers. Anything that will help us avoid the costly and time-consuming fallout from a “bad” decision.

We’ve written before about the shortcomings of advice you get from books by big business heroes, and why successful people often paint a distorted picture when talking about what made them successful.

But famous business people who write books aren’t the only ones who can lead you astray. It pays to be skeptical of the real usefulness of advice from consultants, coaches, networking group contacts, advisors, friends and relatives and people you meet along the way, even those who know you well and have your best interests at heart.

How can it be that following the advice of knowledgable and well-meaning folks can lead you in the wrong direction?

Every piece of advice, every success story, every anecdote comes with at least one form of bias.

I’m not talking about the kind of bias that means hostility toward a particular group of people. I mean “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion” — anything that can influence the advice-giver’s perception and evaluation of your unique situation, and thus skew his advice on how you should deal with it.

Here are some examples of advice-giver bias that can affect the usability of the advice offered:

  1. “My path” bias. Your problems and challenges remind others of similar situations in which they’ve found themselves. They may feel the path they chose was a good one and believe you’d benefit from taking a similar action. (“Leaving my six-figure corporate job and striking out on my own was the best move I ever made.”) Or, maybe they feel they did the “wrong thing” and want to save you from a similar mistake. (“I should have selected a bigger company to handle that job.”) Sometimes an advice-giver has a bias toward a path for no reason other than because he chose it — or didn’t choose it.
  2. “Rear-view mirror” bias. Again, this one comes from an advice-giver who’s had to make a similar decision, and wants to share some wisdom gained from looking back on the experience. But keep in mind that the cliche “hindsight is 20/20” really means “hindsight only appears to be 20/20.” Simply stated, things may not have really happened the way they’re remembered.
  3. “I know what’s best for you” bias. Sometimes the advice-giver seems to know you so well he has a strong belief that making a particular choice will be best for you. It pays to inquire into what he’s seeing that’s giving rise to that opinion.
  4. “Time-place-situation-money” bias. Every situation is unique as to time, place, people and context, and has its own considerations that drive decision-making. It’s good to make it a habit to find out key facts about the advice-giver’s similar past experiences that may be influencing what she’s telling you. Pressures facing her industry at the time, budget, competitive landscape, her role in the company, product life-cycle can all influence decision-making. Experiences can leave behind a kind of bias that affects the advice-giver’s narrative and take-home message and how he generalizes its applicability to new challenges faced by another (i.e., you).

There’s nothing wrong with seeking advice. But in determining how much weight to give it, and what to do with it, it’s important to find out as much as you can about what’s behind it.