The Thing About Advice: Sizing up and understanding the people who hold power in your life

Awareness of intention is the best defense.


In the last post, I proposed making a list of all the things you do well. Not only was it an exercise in positive self-talk but it served the additional purpose of getting you to think about your career from the self outward as opposed to looking at employment opportunities and judging you and your experience by them. I’m in the middle of this paradigm switch and it isn’t an easy one to undertake.

Training yourself to think outward is hard. Undoing years of programming that affects the way we see ourselves and the world in relation to us is even harder. When we are young we think about what we want to be when we grow up. When we reach adulthood that script is flipped and we look to the market to decide who we should be. Our self worth is determined less by who we are and more on who THEY need us to be.

This isn’t conspiratorially minded thinking, it isn’t some paranoid delusion about succumbing to the lizardfolk and their hidden agenda of world domination. It is a shift away from patterns that contribute to our unhealthiness, unhappiness, and feelings of unfulfillment.

Coming of age, especially in this modern era of “choice,” we are lead to believe that we can do anything we want to and then as we look to work, college and beyond, our dreams are suddenly cut off at the knees. Practicality steps in and that dream of becoming an astronaut becomes just that, a long lost piece of who we once aspired to be.

At some point, we stop talking about who we wished we would become. We give up not only our hopes but our memories of a time when we could hope. We disassociate from the things that attracted us in our most idealistic state. We give in to the idea that realistic dreaming doesn’t exist and that along with the other accouterments of childhood, throw our aspirations away like refuse.

I do not believe that anyone can do anything they want, physical limitations prevent most folks from becoming Astronauts but far more people should be able to consider the possibility. We should allow ourselves the occasional indulgence of thinking about what things would have looked like if we had been able to live that dream.

The world has a way of limiting us. Heaping unrealistic burdens of ever-narrowing choices over our heads until we are covered in reasons for giving up. Many of us find ourselves in the middle of our lives when we realize this. We are steeped in habits that keep us from actualizing our full selves and fulfilling what our teachers referred to as our potential.

There are some very real reasons for this. Lack of education, poverty, discrimination, disability all contribute, in different and variable ways to our selling ourselves short. Those of us who have navigated through these limits have a duty to ourselves and to those of us who haven’t been able to sail by a star to pay special attention to what comes next. We have an added obligation to remember what we learn and show others how to sail. Which brings me to the subject of this post.

Advice, not so much giving but getting it. If all the above is true I’d like to assume that you are aware enough of your own awakening to use your powers for good. The type of advice or the types of people who offer advice I’d like to talk through are the toxic, manipulative and machiavellian. They are supervisors, co-workers and subordinates alike, but it’s the ones at the top, the ones with real power to determine the course of your life.

I’ve received a lot of bad advice in my life, a fair amount of it based on the perception of me by others. When someone gives you advice consider where they, and by extension, their advice might be coming from. The first and most important thing is to really look at who that person is to you and what their agenda might be FOR you.

It’s not easy to look into someone’s soul in the moment and quickly assess what options they have already decided are open to you. This is, however, one of the things you must learn to do when processing, especially unsolicited advice from someone who can and will benefit from your decisions.

“When someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time” – Maya Angelou

When you have a bad feeling about something or someone, listen to it. If your first encounter leaves you feeling angry or unsettled, listen to that feeling and begin thinking about how you should react. Especially clever manipulators will never always be jerks. They will vacillate between slightly helpful and quietly critical. When someone seems emotionally unbalanced or distracted more than a few times every two weeks or so, something isn’t right.

There have been several points in my life, in school, in work, and in love, when I was given advice by someone who would directly benefit if my decision went one way or another. Sometimes these interactions are driven by fear, sometimes they are just misattributed punitive exercises of power that just happen to have fallen on me. Sometimes there are hidden agendas and false doors are opened. The doors are offered as limited choices when there are many more that also exist, but are not offered.

These take the form of random kindnesses or vague indications of improvement without specific measurable goals. If a supervisor is offering you redemption without telling you how to achieve it, they just want you gone. They are either required by HR or a union or a governing board to give you another chance and document the failures before showing you the door. They may also be waiting for work to let up or a crisis to pass until letting you go. It could be that they are just not very good at that part of their job but not likely.

People are never fully honest when they hold all the cards, that is how power works. They will get you to try to play a game that doesn’t work with the deck they offer and they do this because it is in their best interest to move you toward a certain choice. Limiting the outcomes of the game is the way to win with the least amount of effort. Every single one of us is guilty of this. Sometimes in small ways and others large, though in the absence of power it only amounts to petty squabbles or Jerry Springer staged brawls. Having power to many people is a means unto an end and regardless of lofty pronouncements to the contrary, your jerk boss is exactly this guy.

Parenting is one of the areas where limiting choice can be used in a positive way. Limiting the choices we offer our children to ones we have already tested is a lawful good reason for deception by omission. Unfortunately, even in parenting, this can be used as a tactic to play into the hands of someone who intends to do harm.

Many supervisors see themselves as parents. Some good, some unfit as both parents and bosses. Like a parent/child relationship, the supervisor/worker relationship is unbalanced by design. As a parent can use that imbalance to guide, teach and protect or they can they use it to manipulate, console or cajole. When a parent focuses on what is best for them instead of what is best for their child, the relationship becomes toxic. Bosses are the same.

Bosses often present these false doors as options, believing that this steering is a good thing. It never is. They may make changes in ways that do not allow protest, where there is simply no choice. There may be some remediation offered depending on your level of importance in their grand scheme, but the choices are usually false. Bad bosses are notorious for this.

When I worked for a particular employer, one of the two I have ever worked for that was unionized, there were changes made without my consent that removed me from my office and left me “homeless” for a time.

My boss approved the changes behind my back and left me no choice but to accept the arrangement she had come up with as a “plan b.” The tactic could have been based on a few things, nepotism, the need to covertly monitor my movements and actions to “keep me close,” they could have also been based on feedback from another “boss” who never seemed to personally take to me, I still do not know for sure.

I do know that I had recourse, I had a union rep who I’d become friendly with who I could alert to this sudden change in status, and I did. Within a week I was settled in a larger, better office with a window.

On many other occasions, there was no union and no recourse. There are often adversaries dressed up like advisors who use their power to persuade you to make choices (which by their nature are not real choices at all) that make their lives easier or that make them look like the hero. They keep vital information from you because in their place of power they have access to more information than you do, and they use it to get you either out of their way or to bend to their will.

Manipulative advisors often come with a handshake and a smile, they sometimes even believe they have your best interests in mind. Spoiler alert: They do not.

They pretend to care about your career or your livelihood and if there is a real issue that needs addressing, the remedy is given in such a harsh way that moving on from there is virtually impossible. They have already poisoned the well and knowingly or unknowingly sealed your fate.

If you intend on working anywhere my advice is simple. Interview prospective employers as thoroughly as they would interview you. Find out who you will be reporting to, research them as thoroughly as you can. Talk to people who have worked for them and get as much information as you can. Ask questions that reveal the traits you want to avoid. Ask about management styles, conflict resolution and how they review. This is the same in any environment, Wall Street or McDonald’s.

Research the company as much as you can. The process of reverse rating employers is not an easy one, especially if your employer is small, nonprofit or niche. Some employee reviews can be found at, and but reviews of specific managers are woefully underrepresented.

Side note: Anyone who is reading this and looking for an idea for a business, a well-balanced review site where employees, former and current, can review individual bosses and companies would greatly even the playing field and make companies responsive to their current and potential employees.

As a general rule, you should do a cursory check of anyone you do business with, I’m not of the belief that credit reports should be considered if you are doing business with someone to whom you are not extending terms. As a matter of fact, there is no conclusive evidence that credit checks reveal anything about a person other than they have or do not have a good score or that they are an asshole.

I’m a firm believer in not taking anything out of context, hence all the legwork prior to engaging with someone.

Understanding someone who has your livelihood in their hands is key. Sizing them up when they first meet you, watching body language and reading cues is as important as any background check, and asserting a strong posture is important as well. This is a pretty good guide to understanding how an interviewer sees you by watching for nonverbal cues.

I go further, I try to study people in the context of their dealings in less controlled environments and pay attention to as much of their nonverbal cues as I can. Ex FBI agent Joe Navarro (with Marvin Karlins) book What Every Body is Saying, is a good primer.

Advice is flavored by the giver. Knowing who really has your best interest at heart and understanding what they have to gain or lose by giving you advice is a mountainous task especially without knowing someone for a good amount of time under varying circumstances. Inoculating yourself against being used is another topic entirely. A topic I’ll discuss in my next post.