How to Give Coworkers Advice Without Annoying Them

Suggestions can be helpful, but it's easy to overstep your bounds.

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Alison Green
Have you ever looked at another area of your company and thought, "They'd get better results if they did it this way instead?" If so, have you ever been tempted to tell them?

This is a sticky area. Even when your input is fantastic, if you don't present it in the right way, you can make people defensive and irritated.

[See what to do when you're frustrated at work.]

Some people handle this by never making suggestions to others at all, sacrificing the possibility of giving input that might really be appreciated. Others handle it by plunging right in, repeatedly, and over time end up alienating their colleagues.

But there's a way to give input that won't make people want to tell you to mind your own business. It's all in how you do it, and your expectations of what will happen after you do it. (Note: These tips assume you’re a peer and not the person’s boss.)

  • First, assume that if something isn't within your direct area of work, it's probably more complicated than it looks from the outside. Make sure you present your input in such a way that it's obvious you recognize that.
    • Next, make it clear that the person can handle your suggestion however they want. Tell them they can use it or not, as they see fit, and they don't even need to follow up with you about it if they don't want to. That’s because you don’t want them to feel obligated to spend their time explaining that your suggestion, while sounding good on the surface, wouldn't work because of x, y, and z, or that it's been considered but ultimately discarded because of reasons you wouldn't see from the outside, or that it's a good point but just not a priority relative to other things, and so forth.
    • [See when a coworker gets special treatment.]

      • Don’t keep pushing. Assume your suggestion will be given the due it merits, and that you have colleagues in whose competence you can trust—that they'll use good input if it makes sense, or fits in with their overall priorities. This is important even when their reasons don't resonate with you, from the outside, or are even unknown to you. (Of course, if you can’t trust your colleagues to be competent, that's a different issue and you need a job with managers who don't let incompetence go on very long.)
      • In sum, make sure you don't come across as lacking a basic level of trust in your colleagues' competence and judgment. Offering input doesn't necessarily conflict with that, but it can when it's done in such a way that your colleagues would feel obligated to defend or explain themselves—or even argue the issue with you.

        Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results. She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.

        • See all of hiring manager Alison Green's insider advice.