Managers who seek and give advice effectively are also likely to wield soft power, our research shows. But you risk damaging your reputation if your behavior has even a hint of inauthenticity — if you use counsel to curry favor, for instance, or to advance an agenda. So tread carefully. It takes a long time to build trust and political capital, but you can lose credibility very fast.
Consider this example. The head of a business unit — we’ll call him Cal — was weighing three finalists for the open position of marketing VP, who would also report through a dotted line to the corporate CMO. Cal had a clear favorite; to ensure that she got hired and came in with high-level support, he sought “advice” from his head of sales and the CMO. Cal began these conversations with open-ended questions: What skills and capabilities do you think the position requires? Which of the candidates strikes you as best meeting those qualifications? After listening, he asked more pointedly, “If you were in my shoes, which candidate would you choose?”
But each time the head of sales or the CMO spoke in favor of one of the other candidates, Cal responded critically, diminishing them relative to his favorite. As a result, his “advisers” felt they’d just been lobbied, not heard. Worse yet, they felt manipulated and misled. They had thought their counsel was genuinely being sought, but they walked away with considerable distrust of Cal.
Though seeking advice when you make decisions can enhance your credibility and others’ trust in you — both crucial for increasing influence, effectiveness, and political support — you have to really want it when you ask for it. Otherwise, you’ll inadvertently train people to question your motives, which will damage your efforts to exercise influence in the future. That’s what happened with Cal. Both the sales head and the CMO were guarded around him after it became clear that he was looking for buy-in, not guidance.
Now consider another example — this one about giving advice. An executive we’ll call Astrid was asked by a peer how to handle a direct report who always delivered results, but alienated many of his colleagues in the process. After Astrid asked a few key questions (What was at stake for the company? What was at stake for the peer? Were there any other folks who could step up and take on the work?), she had a sense that her peer needed to do a better job managing his team (and his own insecurity) rather than move or fire the problematic direct report.
But instead of leaping to that conclusion, Astrid took a more nuanced approach. First she shared her understanding of the situation and the mistakes she might be tempted to make in her peer’s shoes. Then she offered a suggestion: “How about bringing the team together to say that the company is counting on everyone to work better together? That would help set the stage for a separate one-on-one conversation with your difficult employee. You could frame his development goal as a way of helping the team deliver on that larger mandate.” After sharing the rationale behind her advice, Astrid laid out two other options to think about: arranging for the direct report to transfer to another area or bringing in a seasoned supervisor to work closely with him.
Astrid’s peer responded with admiration and thanks. He felt heard, and he fully grasped the advice, appreciating both its wisdom and Astrid’s — all because she had shown empathy and offered alternatives alongside her proposed solution. Since Astrid had crafted her advice in such an open-ended fashion, her peer and others began to see her as “the person to go to with the tough stuff.”
Whether advice makes or breaks you politically has a lot to do with how pure your motives are for seeking it and how empathically you give it. Ironically, as a seeker or as an adviser, you stand to gain subtle, quiet influence by focusing less on securing power and more on opening yourself to others.