Robin Cannon's Blog

Universal Advice Isn't Always Universal

February 19, 2019

I always encourage my team to reach out for advice. I tell them that it’s better to ask for help or guidance than to struggle with a problem alone. Speak to me, to peers on the team, to other colleagues.

This seemed logical to me. Not that I’m revealing any great, secret wisdom. It seemed like advice that’s universal. It’s sensible direction that someone less experienced might have overlooked. Anyone can, and should, take this advice…right?

Except I saw a tweet this week, and it struck home that it’s not that simple.

I’ve been telling all my team the same thing. And I assumed that because my advice was universally given, it could be universally taken. That’s not the case at all.

Not everyone is comfortable reaching out for help. Or, at least, not in every circumstance. It might be a lack of confidence. Or bad previous experiences. Or many other reasons.

For all those people, my suggestion that they reach out for advice isn’t helpful. It may even be counterproductive. Now their manager (me) is making them feel bad that they don’t feel comfortable reaching out. And implying that it’s their responsibility to get help when they need it.

I overlooked diversity of experience and attitude. A single tweet made me think about some lessons I could learn.

The general lesson: what works for me doesn’t work for everyone

It could be reaching out to ask for help. It could be learning to say “I don’t know” in the workplace. It could be, simply, “I work better when I listen to this ’Cyberpunk 2077’ playlist on Spotify”.

These are all things that work for me. They’ve helped my in my career. So if someone had told me “try these”, it would have been good advice.

But I also have an aversion to talking to complete strangers. So if I got a piece of advice to “introduce yourself to five new people at a networking event”, I’d panic. It might be “good” advice, but I’m immediately uncomfortable.

I need to be aware that the audience for advice that works for me might not be as receptive as I am.

The specific lesson: create an environment with multiple ways to get support

For advice, support, and help, I need to give my team a broader range of options.

Encouraging people to reach out, when they feel comfortable doing so, can be part of that. It might be some people’s preferred option.

But even a small selection of other ways to provide advice and support could be;

  • better internal documentation
  • tutorial sessions and ‘lunch-and-learns’
  • scheduled pairing sessions between team members
  • defined mentor / mentee relationships

The random third lesson: I can learn something new in one sentence

I was scrolling my twitter feed when I read amberley’s tweet. On another day I could have missed it. Or I could have skimmed her tweet and then forgotten it.

For whatever reason, it stuck with me. And I think I’m the better for having thought about some of its connotations. It triggered this whole blog post (…which is good, because I’ve been procrastinating about this blog for forever).

I can be more aware about what I’m reading and seeing. And I can be more open to new insights when I read and see them.


Robin Cannon

A Brit in Texas. I manage the dev team for IBM's Carbon Design System.
My blog for work, tech, and industry related musings. Thoughts my own.
@shinytoyrobots on Twitter