Rikleen Institute LLC

How to Know When Taking Advice From a Colleague Is a Bad Idea

March 17, 2017

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com on February 15, 2017.

Six years ago, I left a multi-decade career I loved—practicing environmental law and serving as a mediator—to pursue my passion for writing, speaking, and training on a variety of workplace issues. The transition can be covered in a sentence, but the decision to make this change took a long time and, ultimately, was made with the support and wisdom of trusted advisors. Over the years, I have served in that role as trusted advisor to others, and have observed people who have made major career decisions seemingly without effective guidance. In all cases, I have been struck by the processes different people use to seek support and make life-changing decisions. Some cast a wide net and tap into the collective wisdom of their network. Others choose a far narrower circle of advisors. And some simply rely on their own instincts as they make their decisions.

There is no right or wrong answer when choosing to seek guidance and support. So how do you decide what is best for you?

A good place to start is your own history. How have you made decisions in the past? Do you separate the process of making personal decisions from making professional ones? Or do you rely on the same circle of advisors, be they colleagues, teachers, or closer personal relationships?

As you analyze your past decisions, what trends can you find? Are you generally pleased with the career choices you have made? If so, is there a common pattern regarding those you relied upon for wisdom, and the outcome you achieved?

Where the outcome may have been less positive than you would have preferred, are there any trends that you can discern? Did you seek advice from people who may have had a motivation that differed from your own goals? Did you fail to ask those who either know you well, or know the players involved in the challenge facing you? Did you fully disclose all of the factors that may have been relevant to someone’s ability to guide you wisely?

Once you have a sense of what has or has not worked in the past, these three strategies should help you find career support from people outside of your circle of friends and family:

1. Make sure that the people from whom you seek counsel have your best interests at heart. When turning to someone in your workplace, understand whether that individual could see you as a competitor, or may be someone who, for whatever reason, might not have your best professional interests at heart, even if you have a solid personal connection.

2. Seek advice from someone who knows what motivates and drives you. Advice that may seem intrinsically logical for most people may be a terrible fit for your life circumstances. Good advice is specific to the individual.

3. Differentiate between support and validation. If you are asking for help, make sure it is truly wise counsel that you’re seeking, and not simply validation for a decision you have already made.

Developing a network of people who know and care about you can be an essential tool in navigating the workplace. When seeking that counsel, however, you should bring along a healthy dose of self-knowledge, caution, and good instincts. Properly prepared, you are then ready to benefit from the wisdom of others.