When Jane Genova was trying to cope with a difficult client who underpaid her and called at all hours, the speechwriting consultant turned to her significant other for advice. He urged her to be more assertive, suggesting she write a letter that stipulated her new fees and available hours. She did just that and also told the client, “I want to be talked to in a civil manner,” she recalls.
But Ms. Genova’s clients considered her new tactics a laugh riot. They began to mock her with false sincerity, saying things like “Would this be too much work for you?” and “I hope this is a good time to call,” recalls Ms. Genova. “I finally had to leave (the company) because they were playing with me.”
She learned a lesson, though: “I never take advice from a significant other,” she says. “It’s career suicide.” Instead, she opted for counsel from an executive coach, career therapist and even a spiritual adviser, she says. “They said, ‘Grow up.’ ”
Most of our career accomplishments wouldn’t be possible without the love and support of our spouses. Neither would some office gaffes. The betrothed are often selectively informed, sometimes overestimate victories, and can be clueless to the office culture. Delivered with the best of intentions and honey-sweetie coddling, their advice reinforces loony behavior that a reality smack could have prevented.
Brides and grooms can be misguided alternates to “unloving critics,” as novelist John Gardner called them, “uncritical lovers.” David Maister, co-author of The Trusted Advisor, says advice should be helpful reasoning, not conclusions that can be tainted by bias—“a negative bias or a positive bias, which gets in the way just as much.”
Workplace signs of an in-home adviser are easy to mistake for run-of-the-mill office aggrandizement. Dead giveaways include sudden spikes in huffiness, britches-busting antics such as raising a hand for a job for which one is vastly unqualified, self-congratulation over old accomplishments and threats to quit. All are the results of incitements such as, “You march right in there” or the ever-popular, “Tell ’em to shove it!”
Jim English, an art buyer, says he can spot a colleague who has been worked on overnight. “The next day you’ll see someone’s opinion change abruptly” about a company policy, he says.
Another common sign: holding out for way too much money. Mr. English’s friend was told by his wife to ask for more money from a potential employer, who then went with a less-costly candidate. “He would have taken the job for a lot less,” says Mr. English.
Bad recommendations aren’t a sign of dysfunction or an awfully wedded husband and wife, but often the opposite: extreme loyalty. Ken Allen, a communications consultant, can take complaints leveled at him, but not at his family. “I brood on the unfairness of any criticism to my wife long after I would have shaken it off,” he says. He has had to learn to stop giving his wife advice and not to get worked up.
The advice taker is as complicit as the advice giver. Tim O’Brien once worked for a chief executive who wouldn’t let his speeches and memos leave his desk without a nod from his wife, an English major. Her abilities, recalls Mr. O’Brien, “could pass for that of the average C-student.” She ended sentences with prepositions, preferred the most annoying pronoun (“one”) and routinely adorned his memos with grade-school flourishes such as “in conclusion.”
“He demanded high quality and excellence of all the people around him—with that one exception,” says Mr. O’Brien.
Similarly, Pamela Johnston offered an independent contractor a full-time position, arguing that formally joining the staff would mean a higher bonus and more manageable tax withholdings from the free-lancer’s paychecks. But the woman’s husband didn’t like the idea and killed the more lucrative deal.
“It’s bad advice,” says Ms. Johnston, adding that often the stakes are too high for kitchen counselors to admit they’re wrong.
Championing your espoused can be easier than disagreeing with him or her. Three weeks ago, executive assistant Martina Schramm was smarting over losing some of her marketing responsibilities in a company restructuring. She repeatedly complained to her husband who told her not to put up with it “for one second,” she recalls. She says she started believing, “I’m so above all this.”
So Ms. Schramm wrote a letter to her boss arguing that she was the best person for the job and that she wasn’t the only person who thought so: “...after discussion and deliberation with my husband who also thinks I’m... the best choice,” she recalls writing. Her boss was shocked. He explained to her why the move was good for her. He also pointed out that her husband probably had his own motives for goading her. “I’m sure your husband didn’t want to be in the doghouse,” he said.
She agreed with her boss on all counts and explained her new stance to her husband, who suddenly said of her lost duties: “Of course, you wouldn’t want to deal with all that!”
Do you take career advice from your significant other? Or do you ignore it? Tell Jared Sandberg at firstname.lastname@example.org