As soon as women step foot into the working world, they face an inundation of career advice from magazines, from family members, from coworkers, and even from the strangers that they happen to strike up conversations with during a wait at the train station. Each person has their own opinion on how a female worker can optimize her skillset, demeanor, ambition, speech patterns, and outfits to maximize her potential for professional growth. They often feel inclined to share their wisdom -- regardless of whether their beneficiary even wanted the guidance in the first place.
For the person on the receiving end of the conversation, this tidal wave of advice can feel frustrating and stressful. Women -- and particularly those in the earliest years of their career -- may struggle to reconcile conflicting instructions or worry that they might fall behind if they don’t follow given advice. They may even feel insecure in their carefully-planned career trajectory if an unsolicited advisor provides well-meaning but judgemental criticism. Over time, the accumulation of well-intended but grating advice can wear away at the receiver’s confidence, leaving her unsure of her own direction and capabilities.
Now, this isn’t to say that all advice is harmful and wearing -- quite the opposite. When solicited, guidance from our friends, family, mentors, and others can be invaluable, especially when we begin our careers. After all, what better way to learn how to start a business, ask for a raise, or even switch industries than to consult someone who has already done precisely that? Experience is an invaluable tool in any professional development arsenal, even if the lessons we draw on aren’t ones that we lived firsthand.
The problem comes, however, when we begin to think that others’ experiences and opinions are more valuable than our own. In perpetually accepting advice, we unconsciously position ourselves as always needing help -- and stop believing ourselves capable of walking forward on our own.
This would be troubling enough on its own -- but is made even more so because not all advisors instruct to help their advisees grow.
Understanding the Nuances of (un)Healthy Advice-Giving
The reasons behind a person’s decision to give unsolicited advice can vary. Our friends and families want to see us succeed; other women want to mentor us; our colleagues and supervisors want to see us thrive. Well-meaning advice-givers are often motivated by altruism, friendliness, or even excitement.
A series of four studies published in the May 2018 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that even when an advice-giver isn’t actively or consciously attempting to control another person, the very act of providing advice provides a sense of sway and power. An earlier study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania supports this finding, writing: “In giving unsolicited advice, the advice-giver appears to presume that his/her authority will be accepted by the advisee.” The report goes on to say that because women are socially conditioned to shy away from authoritative statements and use more questions, their conversational partners -- and assertive men, in particular -- often already have a presumption of authority and therefore feel comfortable giving unsolicited advice.
Naturally, the advice-receiver is put in an inferior position, which can have a clear and detrimental impact on both their confidence and their relationship with the advice-giver -- although the advice-giver may not immediately recognize the harm they cause.
As MindBodyGreen writer Dr. Margaret Paul wrote of her experience as being an unsolicited advisor, “Over the years, I finally began to understand that my imposing viewpoints weren't being interpreted as sharing wisdom, and my care was instead being viewed as an attempt to control.”
The truth is, no one can tell you how to live your professional life better than you. While others’ perspectives can and should -- when requested -- inform your decisions, they should never take precedence over your own opinions.
Here are a few tips for how you can productively dismiss unwanted career advice.
When someone gives you unsolicited advice, decline their assistance. You can do so politely by acknowledging their perspective and intent; however, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that you needed, requested, or couldn’t have succeeded without their help.
Don’t Ask for Advice to Be Polite
Sometimes, we ask questions for the sake of making polite conversation. However, if you don’t need advice, don’t ask for it -- if you do, you may inadvertently make others think that they have permission to step into an authoritative or mentor-like role over you.
Accepting productive advice without losing self-confidence is a balancing act that you will need to achieve alone. As feminist writer Rebecca Solnit put the matter: “I’ve learned that a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing–though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots.”
It is possible to stand firm against unsolicited advice while listening to those you want guidance from; however, striking that balance can take work. Shut down your self-appointed counselors if you feel that they’re forcing their authority onto you -- or don’t. The choice is, as always, up to you.