Advice vs. guidelines

The Philosopher Developer

June 21, 2019

It’s been a while! This is another 60-minute post.

Here’s a concept I often find myself mentally coming back to. I frequently want to use these terms in conversation, but I refrain because I am aware whoever I’m talking to doesn’t have a shared understanding of what I mean by these terms. So this is me writing it down so that I can link to it in the future.

Advice is a suggestion you give someone to be helpful to them as an individual.

Guidelines are instructions you give to everyone in a group, to be helpful to the group as a whole.

The key difference is in what you’re treating as constant. When you give advice, you aren’t trying to change the system; you’re just trying to help one person within the system. You take the system itself for granted. Advice is unopinionated about whether the system is good or bad.

Guidelines define how a system should be. When you define guidelines, you are trying to change the system. You’re writing down how you think things should work.

Logically, the people with the authority to control a system write guidelines while those with no authority dispense advice.

Here’s an example. Suppose you’re visiting a friend in another country and your luggage gets lost. You ask an airline employee for help, but they say there’s nothing they can do. Your friend knows corruption is rampant, so he suggests that you offer the employee a bribe. This would be advice: your friend obviously knows that corruption is wrong, but he’s not trying to change the system right now. He’s treating the fact that the system is corrupt as a given and focusing on helping you, his friend.

Now imagine that the airport authority decides to formalize this advice in the form of guidelines. Suppose that to be helpful to the entire population of travelers in the airport, they print out signs reading “If your luggage is lost, please bribe an airline employee to help you” and post them around all the baggage claims. This would be outrageous. Suddenly the idea of bribery has been enshrined: it’s not just how the system works, it’s how the system is meant to work. There’s a big difference.

Here’s another example. My wife and I have traveled to many other countries. In some of the places we’ve visited, it isn’t safe for women to go out alone at night due to high rates of violent crime against women. When the locals in these places have advised my wife not to go out after dark without me, that has been helpful advice. Of course this doesn’t mean that women should not be allowed to go outside at night without their husbands. These individuals are trying to be helpful: they can’t stop the crime themselves, so they treat it as a given and offer suggestions to avoid it.

One last example. If my friend is interviewing for a new job and she gets as far as salary negotiations, I will probably tell her to lie about what she’s currently earning. This is because I know that in many cases this will anchor what the recruiter or hiring manager will offer her, and I also know that there’s a gender wage gap at many companies, so she’ll likely get a smaller offer than a male candidate would if she doesn’t lie. I don’t like that there’s a wage gap, or that companies try to pay their employees as little as possible; but when I’m looking to help one person (my friend) within the system, I will take the system as it is for granted.

Sometimes we mistake advice for guidelines, and vice versa. This can be the result of a mismatch in perceived authority. As a manager, I might offer advice to someone on my team that, if I’m not careful, they’ll interpret as guidelines and communicate to their peers as such. I might not see myself as having the power to change the system, but they might think that I do, hence the disconnect.

Now flip the salary example around and pretend you’re in control of the system: you’re running your own company, so you get to decide how salaries are determined. Would you say, “We’ll ask candidates what they’re currently making, assume they’re lying, and negotiate them down to where we think they are (and incidentally, we will gladly perpetuate any unfair wage gaps that exist with this approach)”? Hopefully not. That doesn’t feel1 like how the system should work. I’d like to think that if I’m running my own company one day, it would be more like: “We’ll establish a fair salary for every role we need, and when we hire someone into that role that’s what we’ll pay them, regardless of what they were making before.”

Of course, if that isn’t how every other company does things, I might start to worry: maybe I’ll end up paying junior employees more than I should, or I’ll miss out on top talent because my offers to them aren’t high enough. When I start thinking along these lines, I become doubtful of my ability to define the system after all; and when I don’t believe I can change the system, I don’t bother writing guidelines, I just give advice.

So that’s the concept. If this distinction between guidelines and advice makes sense to you, you’ll probably start to notice it quite a lot in the world.


  1. Well, it doesn’t feel that way to me, anyway! Maybe if I were a die-hard capitalist.