“You should spend more time on change management” is general guidance, whereas detailed prescriptive advice sounds like “You should meet with George on Monday and revise his KPIs.”
There is a lot that can go wrong with detailed prescriptive advice, which is why many people shy away from it. A standard piece of management lore says, “Tell employees what they need to accomplish, not how they need to accomplish it.” That lore, in itself, is an example of general guidance.
General guidance doesn’t presume you know the details of the situation better than the employee, and it avoids the natural reaction of employees to resist being told what to do. This might lead us to suggest managers provide general advice and let the employee take it from there.
Yet when a manager provides general advice, people often want more direction. If a manager says, “When you’re dealing with a customer who wants to make a return that you can’t allow, be a good listener and show that they are being heard,” the employee will often reply, “Can you give me a script?” A script may seem the opposite of what’s called for in a sensitive situation, yet even experienced employees may want that sort of thing.
Here’s another example: if an employee is having trouble working with a peer, you might say, “You need to adjust your approach to Deepa because she’s an extrovert and you’re an introvert.” The person may respond with “Yes I get that, but what do I actually do?”
When to give prescriptive advice
There are two reasons why people want prescriptive advice. The first reason is that they may not have enough experience to know what to do; the second is that they may be too busy to have the mental energy to figure it out for themselves. That’s why when our employees, whether inexperienced or seasoned, ask for prescriptive advice we should be ready to give it to them.
Prescriptive advice can work well because sometimes all people need is a starting point. When they have that, they can take it from there.
A good employee won’t mindlessly read from a script, but the script will get them off to the right start. If you tell an introvert that meeting with an extrovert in a quiet space, one-on-one, it may help them move forward with the meeting rather than dreading and avoiding it all together.
The risks of prescriptive advice
If an employee is stuck and just looking for a tip to get moving, then prescriptive advice is the right tool. However, sometimes employees ask for prescriptive advice to duck responsibility for the problem. If an employee follows a manager’s advice and things don’t work out then they may try to say, “I did what I was told. It didn’t work. It’s not my fault. Now tell me what to do.”
Managers must not fall for this excuse.
One way to prevent employees shirking responsibility is to tell them, “Look it’s up to you to solve this problem. Here’s one specific thing you could do. It may help, it may not, but it’s how I’d approach the situation.”
Prescriptive advice can also be flat out wrong, and this can leave the employee frustrated. So, if managers don’t have well thought out advice to offer, then they are probably best to stick with general guidance.
Don’t underestimate the sophistication of prescriptive advice
Prescriptive advice doesn’t seem as smart as general guidance to some. Instead of outlining a set of concepts, we’re just detailing a specific action. This may make prescriptive advice seem easier or less sophisticated than general guidance, but that’s pretty much the opposite of the truth.
the right immediate action requires wisdom. It may be easier to come up with a
broad theory of human personality than figure out how an extreme introvert
should launch a conversation with an extreme extrovert.
Don’t underestimate the sophistication of
prescriptive advice. It takes real effort and experience to find the gems that
are going to get someone unstuck — so treasure them when you do.
Help managers be better at giving advice
General guidance is a common type of coaching feedback. It helps the employee understand the situation and leaves them with the responsibility to fix the problem, but general guidance may leave them asking questions about what to do next.
Giving prescriptive advice that the employee can use right away without a lot of extra mental effort on their part seems to be less common, but it can be more effective in some situations.This kind of advice seems simple and so we may underestimate its value and the effort it takes to do it well. However, providing manager training and giving them concrete examples of strong prescriptive advice will greatly aid them in becoming effective performance coaches.