How Asking Multiple People for Advice Can Backfire

17 May, 2019 / Articles

When was the last time you sought someone’s advice? Perhaps you were navigating a tricky situation at work, searching for jobs, or making an important purchase. In these situations, we often focus on gathering all of the information we can in order to make the best choice. That’s why we may turn to a few or many people for different opinions. Research, after all, has shown that leveraging the “wisdom of crowds” can lead to more accurate decisions. But could turning to multiple people ever backfire? Our recent research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes suggests it may.

Doing the “right” thing is undoubtedly important, but so are the impressions we make on and the relationships we establish with our advisors. Given that we commonly consult people with higher status than us, their perceptions about us could have an out-sized impact on our futures.

In a series of studies, we tried to understand the interpersonal consequences of people’s advice-seeking strategies by investigating how advisors reacted to them. In one study, we asked 200 workers in the United States to recall a time they had been asked for advice, in which they were either the only person or one of multiple people consulted. We then asked about their impressions of the advice seeker, how close they were after the exchange, and how willing they would be to give guidance to the same person in the future.

Given how commonly most of us are told to seek second and third opinions, we expected advisors to rate those pursuing this strategy as more competent. But we found the opposite. People who were in a group of several advisors not only rated the advice seeker as less competent, but also indicated that they felt more socially distant to them later and were less interested in advising them in the future.

What prompted the negative reaction? We hypothesized that advisors were really reacting to the reduced probability that their own advice would be followed. (The more people an advice seeker approaches, the less likely it becomes that he or she will follow any one advisor’s advice.) People tend to think highly of themselves and their own opinions and gain status when their advice is taken. So they might be offended by the idea that their advice could be disregarded and, as a result, negatively judge and distance themselves from the offending party.

We tested the link between the advice seekers’ follow-through and advisors’ subsequent behavior in a series of five experiments with 1,362 participants, in which we controlled whether recommendations were taken or not. We found that advisors whose suggestions were ignored did become more offended and were more likely to denigrate and sever their relationship with the seekers. They also felt less secure in their capabilities and social standings.

To investigate the link between these negative reactions and the fear of rejection sparked by presence of multiple advisors, we conducted another controlled experiment. We recruited 186 experienced workers from an online crowd-sourcing platform (Amazon Mechanical Turk) and told them that a novice worker had asked them for advice about using the platform. Half of the advisors believed the newbie was seeking counsel from only them; the other half believed the person was consulting four other experts. (In reality, the role of the novice was pre-programmed.)

Advisors were then asked how likely they thought it was that their advice would be followed. They were also asked to rate the seeker’s competence and given the opportunity to either continue working with the person or to work with someone else on a subsequent task. Sure enough, we found that advisors told they were among a group of people consulted thought their advice was more likely to be ignored and correspondingly deemed the novice as less competent. They were also more likely to select a different partner.

Having uncovered a significant interpersonal cost to following the wisdom of crowds – or simply disregarding advice – we wanted to understand how pervasive these behaviors were. Maybe people understand this and avoid these risky advice-seeking strategies. But when we surveyed 119 full-time employees across an array of U.S. industries who had sought advice in the past month, 58% reported having consulted multiple advisors, and 52.9% reported ignoring recommendations they had received.

Why might advice seekers overlook this potential for backlash? Our research reveals that they don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with their advisors when it comes to the purpose of their interactions. In another study, we found that those looking for advice simply wanted to receive information (thereby widening the set of options considered), whereas those giving advice were more likely to believe that they were supposed to provide direction (which would serve to narrow choices).  If you illuminate a specific path, you might be more likely to expect people to follow it than if you shine a light in a general area.

What all of this work seems to suggest is that advice seekers should expand their consideration of the potential consequences of asking for guidance. In addition to considering who will provide the most information, ask yourself how advisors might react if their advice is not followed.  You might also benefit from being more transparent about your goals. If you clarify the reason why you are soliciting advice (“I am hoping to explore all my options”), that may help set the tone for the discussion and expectations for the actions you take in the future.

For advisors, it’s worth understanding the general tendency to react to advice seekers with an egocentric bias. Many of us genuinely want to help those who seek counsel, and our recommendations may not always be the best.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

Harvard Business Journal


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