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.

Whilst it’s easy to detect overt controls like bullying, anchoring can be subtle. One strategy people use is to link themselves by association with someone of value. By doing this they send a signal that their view is not just right but validated by a higher authority.

For example, they might preface a discussion by saying, “look I know the boss agrees with me on this one…” or “on one of the three Boards that I sit on we think…” And while I am drawing on workplace examples, they are just as applicable in personal life.

These statements are meant to reorient the way we see and respond to the speaker. They may or may not be true in fact, but regardless, we need to understand the intention. If they are being used to describe a reality, all well and good, if they are being used to shut down disagreement, not so.

A further problem is that people drawn on examples from their area of expertise and extrapolate to others with an equal sense of authority.

No one minds accepting genuine expertise. But just because you know about one area does not automatically mean you know about another. You can’t wave a law degree at an issue of medicine or claim the higher ground on art because you know how to run a business. Having said that you are entitled to a view, that view is your personal taste.

Remember, expert opinion itself varies. Put three experts in a room and you rarely get agreement, but what is happening (if it’s a good debate) is the refinement of ideas.

I am not, however, suggesting that all opinions are equally informed. People train for years to develop particular skills and come off a higher base in their field.

But a doctorate in Mechanisms of Volatile Odorant Detection in Drosophila does not qualify someone as the company secretary any more than one in Modelling of Time Preference Determination under Endogenous Growth Theoretic Framework makes another the best head of HR .

Even if you are working directly in your area of expertise you will have deep insight into some issues and not others. The best teachers welcome questions and new inputs and are more interested in collaboration and extending knowledge than cheap wins.

Unfortunately, many of the boorish contests we see in corporate life are less about growth than ego, although unmanaged they can lead to dysfunction. For example, people may feel so intimated they don’t raise real issues they’ve picked up on that could have significant impacts for the business later on.

Leaders can feel pressured to have all the answers but remember that today’s facts are tomorrow’s fiction. Leave room for uncertainty. Many of our closest held beliefs have given way to others over time. This is not because earlier facts were ‘wrong’ but rather because they were altered by new discoveries.

I believe we need an additive approach to leadership that encourages us to hold multiple and even contradictory ideas, an and-and mindset rather than an either-or view. And we are allowed to express our opinion, and we allow others to do so, and we value credentials, and we do not defer.

The difficulty with vesting self worth by association is what happens when things shift. If you believe that your worth comes from your position, what happens when that changes? If you get your kicks from being right at others expense and that’s exposed, who are you then?

We need to know ourselves with reference to something more solid. This means developing a mindset in which we seek the best available information, accept that facts change and value others contributions while simultaneously being critically aware. And developing corporate cultures that do the same.

As leaders we can check in with ourselves regularly by asking:

  1. Do I hide behind my own or others credentials? If so, why?
  2. Am I able to acknowledge expertise without uncritically deferring to it?
  3. Am I open to new information and willing to let go of old views when presented with convincing evidence?
  4. Do I agree with others because I feel compelled to do so, or do I form my own, considered views?
  5. How can I use what I know to develop and nurture the people around me?

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