Why deferring to ‘expertise’ can be dangerous

I was recently at a workshop where a participant introduced himself by listing his Ivy League credentials; while impressive, his doctorate was in a discipline unrelated to the discussion and the act was out of context.

Notwithstanding this, many people subsequently looked to him to lead or tacitly sought his approval when speaking.

What he had done was to anchor the group around his primacy as an intellect and limit challenges to his authority before they occurred.

These sorts of dynamics are damaging for everyone involved:

  1. People who resist questioning often need to appear right. In this way the need to be right is more important than the right information. Frequently a flag for insecurity, it keeps them stuck but also prevents the healthy debate needed to get measured outcomes.
  2. By automatically deferring to others we feel disempowered and inadvertently contribute to cultures of misinformation. However, more importantly from my perspective, we fail to exercise a faculty vital for development: critical thinking.

Understanding how people use anchoring as a form of control helps us better navigate discussions.

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Value expertise but don’t defer

I was at a workshop where a man introduced himself like this: when I did my doctorate at Insert Ivy League University Here.

Now there’s nothing wrong with establishing credentials in particular when they are relevant to the discussion, which in this case they were not.

What he had done was to anchor the rest of the group around his primacy as an intellect, which he certainly was. Without needing to say it directly, he had sent a signal that his views were ipso facto going to be better and to disagree with him if you dared .

Many subsequently and unconsciously looked to him to lead. Those who dared speak cast glances in his direction, tacitly seeking his approval.

This is how individually and collectively we agree to defer and give away power.

People anchor others in many ways, sometimes overtly (which makes it easier to detect) but often subtly.

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