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Tainted suggestions


Why are you telling me this? People distrust unsolicited workplace advice and, surprisingly, this negative reaction is not reduced if the advice-giver is a friend or shares many ties with the recipient, says a new study co-authored by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Businessmen shaking hands in a darkened office at night with city lights visible through the window.
Jochen Menges.
Dr Jochen Menges

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds that people in the workplace put far more trust in solicited advice, ascribing prosocial motives to those providing it, while people distrust unsolicited advice because they view it as driven by self-serving motives of the advice-giver.

Surprisingly, the new study involving nearly 900 workers finds that this negative reaction to unsolicited advice was not reduced or otherwise moderated by friendship with the advice provider, whether the two people are members of the same social groups with many third-party ties in common, or the advice-giver’s position in their respective social networks.

In other words, starkly: If you offer workplace advice uninvited, prepare to be distrusted no matter who you are or who you are talking to.

“We were surprised to find that no variable we tested significantly reduced the negative attributions people associate with unsolicited advice,” says study co-author Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School. “The variables we tested included whether the advice-giver and recipient were part of the same social group, whether the advice-giver gives advice to many others at work, and how the advice-giver brokers advice between disconnected others at work. These results show that distrust of unsolicited advice is remarkably robust, and that carries implications for the workplace and beyond.”

The study says that organisational literature usually portrays advice as a “valuable but neglected informational resource”, because employees are often reluctant to ask for advice. This could be addressed through more unsolicited advice, but the study underlines that such a strategy will be unsuccessful unless firms understand how recipients react to solicited and unsolicited advice.

“When employees receive solicited advice, the advisor’s reason for providing advice is clear – the recipient asked for it,” the study says. “In contrast, when employees receive unsolicited advice, the advisor’s motivation is more ambiguous, prompting recipients to think about why the advisor offered advice.”

The study defines unsolicited advice in organisations as “work-related information containing guidance or recommendations about prudent future action that the recipient did not request”. It deliberately focuses only on advice rather than help, because advice does not involve surrendering significant control over the task to the advisor.

The paper is based on three studies: data from full-time employees at three UK marketing agencies “where advice was critical to the collaborative nature of employees’ everyday work”; individuals in the Netherlands working full time in jobs requiring regular interactions with co-workers; and employees from the US recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The authors conclude with a reference to Aesop’s fable The Fox Without a Tail in which a fox shamed by losing his tail to a hunter’s trap tries, unsuccessfully, to convince other foxes to also lose their tails.

“Organisational research has emphasised the benefits of advice sharing, which implies that unsolicited advice will be beneficial,” the study says. “Yet, it appears that Aesop was prescient in his remarks about how people react to unsolicited advice. Offering advice without being asked for it diminishes its value, even when it comes from close relations. Although our findings present a challenge to common views of advice as an informational resource, they echo the words of the fabled Greek storyteller – employees distrust unsolicited advice.” The study in the Journal of Applied Psychology – entitled “How employees react to unsolicited and solicited advice in the workplace: implications for using advice, learning, and performance” – is co-authored by Blaine Landis, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behavior at University College London School of Management; Colin Fisher, Associate Professor at University College London School of Management; and Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School and Professor of Leadership and Human Resource Management at the University of Zurich.