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Why Brains Hate Advice


In the Pixar movie Ratatouille, a novice (and mostly talentless) cook gets an experienced mentor who gives him explicit cooking advice that he heartily heeds. Eventually, after much instruction, intense attention, and lots of practice, he can cook well enough to survive in a top restaurant. The apprentice tells his mentor “Thank you for the cooking advice” and she responds, “Thank you for taking it.”

Is there anything sweeter than someone digesting your brilliant advice?  And, like so many of the most prized delicacies, it’s rare.

We wrote about the limits of advice in our prior issue Advice: Proceed with Caution. Now we have scientific data to explain why ADVICE SO SELDOM WORKS.

Advice as Threat

Dr. Evian Gordon, founder of the Brain Resource Company, explains that the brain’s overarching principle is to classify the world around you into things that either hurt you or help you stay alive. “Minimize danger, maximize reward” is the organizing principle of the brain. Your limbic system is charged with categorizing the world into friend or foe, safe or dangerous. And just to be safe, your limbic system errs on the side of dangerous. Long ago, when a rustle in the bush could have meant imminent death, this was useful.  Now, our sensitive brain doesn’t always serve us so well.

And sadly for those of us who love giving advice (and particularly sad for parents of teenagers), advice lights up all our brain’s danger signals, sapping resources from our higher brain, rendering us less efficient and less able to accept the advice. David Rock, CEO and author of Your Brain at Work, offers an incredibly useful acronym, SCARF, to explain why the brain’s threat system gets activated and how we can leverage knowledge of the brain to minimize threat and increase our capacity.

What the Brain Craves: SCARF


We constantly assess how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. In our personal lives, our neighbors’ new car, their kids’ college acceptance, their groomed yard and much more, are material for comparison. In the work place, even a casual conversation with a boss can trigger a status threat response. And when a superior offers advice, our limbic system focuses on their perceived superior knowledge and experience–not on how we can benefit from the advice.


All humans crave a degree of certainty. When unsure how to resolve a problem, our memory decreases and we disengage from the present moment, focusing instead on what could go wrong in the future. In this mode, we’re less likely to hear and neutrally appraise advice.


People need to feel some control over their lives and an ability to choose. When offered advice, the limbic system can trigger an emotional threat response at having our options narrowed.


Our brains are constantly assessing people as friend or, more often, foe. So before offering someone advice, build relationship.


The cognitive drive to seek fairness is evidenced by people fighting and dying for causes they believe are just. If employees perceive a leader playing favorites, they will withhold trust and true collaboration won’t happen. On the flip side, employees will stay loyal longer to leaders and companies they perceive as fair. When a leader dishes out advice, an employee’s inner dialogue may sound like: “What, you don’t trust me to figure it out?  I bet you wouldn’t tell Suzie what to do.”

Good Advice for You but…

And just because your advice seems optimal to your brain, doesn’t mean it’s right for the brain you’re trying to influence. According to David Rock, “Human brains are so complex and individual that there is little point in trying to work out how another person ought to recognize his or her thinking.  It is far more useful to help others come to their own insights.

What Works

When we come up with our own insights and solutions, our brain is deluged with rewards: our sense of status goes up, along with a sense of increased autonomy and certainty. We even get a little lift from the dopamine burst that encourages us to take action and move us toward forming new neural pathways.

Here are two approaches to help others create rewarding insights:

1. Help others narrow the problem to one clear statement by asking:

  • What’s the core issue?
  • How would you describe the problem in one sentence?
  • What will it look like if resolved successfully?

2. Help them focus on their own internal thought process by asking:

  • What solution are you leaning toward?
  • What have you tried already?
  • How did it work?
  • If you had to guess what to do, what would it be?

And you may help motivate them to act by asking:

  • If nothing changes a year from now, where will you be?
  • What’s the first step you can take?
  • What support can you gather?

For real change to happen, inspiration has to come from within. Sure, you might motivate someone in the short term with carrots and sticks, but it will be fleeting change at best.

Become an Inspiration Catalyst

Withholding advice can be draining. It takes great energy, patience, and self-control to help others find their own insights when you have a golden nugget that you’d love to share. To regularly evoke brilliance from others, you’ll need practice.

You can start by working on your own SCARF. That is, build a brain that trusts more and fears less, and gain capacity to perceive and evaluate options more clearly. While not easy to rewire a brain, with focused effort it will happen. Leaders who invest the time will reap huge rewards as they become more trusting to others and create low-fear-zones where people can let down their guard and do their best work. They also gain the ability to hear and act on good advice swiftly.

“[t]his need to demonstrate how smart we are rarely hits its intended target.”

~ Marshall Goldsmith

Other Resources:

denise green





Denise Green 
Author of Work-Life Brilliance


Smart, Savvy +AssociatesSmart, Savvy + Associates are experts in helping marketing and communications leaders find people and develop teams that thrive and deliver inspiring results. As a people performance company, we specialize in finding marketing and communications talent in the Pacific North West. We also offer training programs for leaders and teams as well as options to become a certified coach or get coached.

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