Feedback and advice have a lot in common. Both can be developmental coaching tools. Both share the goal of helping others get better. But they are very different paths to the same destination.
Giving advice can be helpful when employees have little experience, when the stakes are too high, or when the timeline is too short to let people learn from their mistakes. But feedback is usually the better approach to enable learning, motivation, and sustainable change.
The anatomy of feedback vs advice
At LifeLabs Learning, we've studied what great feedback givers do differently, and we've found that they have a few simple behaviors in common:
- Great feedback givers share an observation, including data and an impact statement - "I noticed you did X. I mention it because of Y."
- Next, they ask questions to understand the other person's perspective and rely on them to decide on the next steps (or brainstorm collaboratively).
Feedback = I observe something you might not be aware of + I bring it to your awareness + I clarify why it matters + you decide what to do.
For example: “I noticed you talked more than others in that meeting and most people didn’t speak up at all, so we might be missing important perspectives. What do you think?”
Advice is deceptively similar but fundamentally different.
Advice = I observe something I think you can do better + I tell you what to do instead.
For example: “I suggest you talk less in our meetings. Something you can try is waiting until everyone else has spoken before you chime in with your ideas.”
Why does the distinction between feedback and advice matter?
Self-awareness: Most advice focuses on what you should do without first clarifying what you did. When we skip what happened (the “before” in contrast to the “after”), we miss the chance to help people gain self-awareness. With more self-awareness, we get better at monitoring our own behavior, giving ourselves real-time feedback, and transferring the learning to other situations (e.g. not just team meetings but 1-on-1's too).
Motivation: Advice without an impact statement is similarly baffling. What is the benefit if I change my behavior? What is the problem if I don't change? Consider the difference between the advice “speak louder” vs the feedback “I can't hear you.” The latter is more likely to inspire action because I understand the impact of my behavior.
Autonomy: Did you find yourself getting a little defensive reading the advice examples in this article? Many people do. That's because being told what to do strips away the autonomy we feel when we come to our own conclusions. For example, maybe instead of speaking louder, the better solution for me is to speak into a microphone or move around the room. Even if I come to the same conclusion (speak up), I will be more motivated by my own idea. While advice might result in compliance, feedback is more likely to lead to commitment.
If you can't offer autonomy because you need people to stick to a certain behavior, make that clear, and offer choice where possible.
For example: "I noticed you didn't involve the team in your decision. As a result, we’ll lose time rebuilding the solution since it doesn't meet their needs. How do you see it? What do you think you could do differently next time? An expectation on our team is to invite all stakeholders to a project kickoff. We can't skip this step, but it's up to you how you want to lead the kickoff. What format works best for you?"
Again, advice isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes people don't know how to solve a problem on their own. Or maybe you have a golden nugget or a pro-tip that could help them. If so, simply combine feedback and advice as part of your coaching conversation by asking for permission to offer advice.
For example, "I've solved a similar problem in the past. Would it be helpful to share how I did it?" Or simply, "Would you like advice on how to do this?"
If you get an invitation, by all means, advise away.