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The Art of Giving Advice

Posted in: Dealing with Fellow Scientists
The Art of Giving Advice

Science is a culture of information exchange, from the top to the bottom. Sometimes we are simply presenting the information, such as in seminars or papers, but most of the time the information changes hands as advice, solicited or unsolicited. Obviously this occurs most often between labmates, but also between scientists within the same department, via e-mail or at conferences between scientists at different institutions, or on websites like this one.

One of the most interesting aspects of this, for me at least, is watching the dynamics of advice solicitation, dispense, and the resulting action. Obviously, certain people are asked for advice because they have developed a reputation for being knowledgeable and approachable, but for every person that becomes that go-to guy or girl, there is another who is equally accomplished and personable whom people largely avoid seeking advice from. Even worse, there are those whom people actively avoid talking about any problem they are having in front of, just to avoid unsolicited advice.

Insight from the experts
A paper examining the value that recipients placed on different types of advice that they received may shed some light on this, as well as enlightening us on the best way we can help others in the future. Normally I would like to read the original paper rather than a summary of it, but unfortunately I don’t have access to it, and it may be better to have an expert in the field boil the work down for us anyway. At Psychology Today, Art Markman summarizes the work of Reeshad Dalal and Silvia Bonaccio.

“[The study] distinguished between four types of advice.

Advice for is a recommendation to pick a particular option.

Advice against is a recommendation to avoid a particular option.

Information supplies a piece of information that the decision maker might not know about.

Decision support suggests how to go about making the choice, but does not make a specific recommendation. (For example, you might recommend that a friend looking to go to a movie check out a website that aggregates movie reviews. You aren’t recommending a particular movie, but just a technique for making a decision.)

In the studies, college students were asked to imagine making a particular decision… They were given a variety of different kinds of advice and asked how satisfying and useful the advice was for making a decision.

In general, people found all of the types of advice to be useful to some degree. However, information was the most useful kind of advice across the studies.”

When I read this, I thought about the advice that the go-to people that I’ve known dispense versus the less favored sources, and my experiences are very consistent with this finding. One of the most interesting interpretations about why Information was the most valued is because it allows the recipient to maintain independence in the decision making process. I found this particularly striking in the context of laboratory culture, since a career in science tends to select some fairly strong and independent personalities. In my experience, most the people whose advice was avoided tended to try to help others by telling them what to do in no uncertain terms rather than allowing them to decide what to do.

Implications for lab dynamics
Another aspect of this that wasn’t discussed is the social implications of the decision of the recipient to follow or not to follow the advice. If you ask somebody for advice and they only give you information, then there is little or no awkwardness afterwards when they ask you what you ultimately decided to do. However, it can be uncomfortable to tell somebody that emphatically evangelized one option over another that you went against their advice. After one of these interactions, you aren’t quick to mention any problems you are having around the now-disgruntled labmate.

By extension, dispensing advice heavily advocating one option over another sets you up for feeling disrespected if the recipient of your advice chooses a different path than the one you advocated. If you routinely hand out this type of advice, your coworkers may start to avoid asking for your input, making you feel disrespected or under-appreciated and socially isolating you from the group.

Implications for training
In addition to these issues, I think there can be a strong argument made for simply dispensing information when asked for advice from a training perspective as well. Part of making a decision is the exploration of the options – in science this often means acquiring detailed knowledge of the mechanisms of options A and B (and C, and D, etc), along with their advantages and shortcomings. If a young trainee is simply told to use protocol A, then this exploration is short-circuited, and little of that knowledge is attained. In addition, a social pattern starts to become established in which the trainee becomes trained to ask for direction rather than thinking for themselves, stunting their development as a scientist.

What do you think? In retrospect, what was the advice method employed by your most valued mentor?

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  1. Jode on April 30, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I don’t think the categories are mutually exclusive – opinions often come with information as well. However, there is a difference between a response that is pure information and one that contains an explicit recommendation.

    If you asked me whether you should use protocol A or protocol B, I could respond:
    “I’ve never used B, but I use A on a regular basis and it has worked well for me. When I had to decide between the two myself, I was concerned that B would damage my samples because it uses chemical x (which is known to damage DNA), and that type of damage could influence assay C, which I was going to perform with these samples.”
    Or I could respond:
    “You should use A. Protocol B is total crap – it uses chemical x, and I read that this could damage the samples and screw up assay C.”
    Both contain the important information, but the second now contains a strong opinion.

    Often you can’t get around this – a co-worker will explicitly ask for a recommendation. In addition, in the real world recommendations vary from slight (“I think either A or B work work, but I would probably use A”) to strong to over-the-top (usually involves cussing). It is the people that tended towards the latter categories that have become somewhat isolated/disgruntled, in my experience.

  2. Matt on April 30, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    “thought” not “though” and “no” rather than “not”; my apologies for those errors.

  3. Matt on April 30, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Thank you for this interesting article on advice. I think, however, that you’ve contructed a bit of a straw man in that information should not be though of so much as a separate category from advice for and advice against, but rather an integral part of any true advice. If I ask someone for their advice, and they fail to provide me with any information as to why they recommend one action or another, that advice is inherently useless to me as a scientist. Without the why, their “advice” is more like rhetoric, which has not place in any true scientific discourse.

  4. Jode on April 27, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    I dream of the day when PubMed has evolved into the computer from Star Trek, so all I have to do when I run into a question that may have been addressed in the literature is ask the ceiling (because the Star Trek computers appear to have been kept in the ceilings on the Enterprise) “Computer: Has anybody compared the binding constants of Protein X for DNA in the presence and absence of ATP?” In your professional opinion, how much longer do I have to wait for that?

  5. Natalie on April 26, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    What I like most about this paper is that it points out the person you should turn to in order to solve your problem – your librarian! Our job is indeed to provide scientists with the best information 😀

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