Beware the Expert

Gerwig 2014-12-08

Communication and decision-making. Over and over, I come back to these two leadership themes. Get these right and you have a chance. Get them wrong and you don’t. Yes, there are many other facets to world-class leadership, but none are so consistently critical as these two, communication and decision-making.

Given my communication and decision-making obsession, it should be no surprise that I was attracted to an international best-seller on “thinking clearly.” You cannot consistently and repetitively make great decisions without clear thinking. I also liked the structure of the book, short chapters (2-3 pages) describing nearly 100 thinking pitfalls (biases) leaders would do well to avoid, biases like “sunken costs” and “false causality.”

The author, Dr. Rolf Dobelli, is a Swiss entrepreneur and writer with a doctorate in economic philosophy. He wrote the book in an effort to learn about (and thereby avoid) common pitfalls that derail individual investors. He didn’t want to throw his hard-earned money away like the masses. I respect that.

And I respect that the pitfalls he highlights are present in nearly all types of decision-making scenarios, not just those related to personal finances. Do I recommend the book? Yes. Though you still have to recognize the highlighted biases as potential pitfalls and avoid them, recognizing the bias is the first step to avoiding its negative impact.

The bias I’ve been thinking about this last week is one called “authority bias.” Essentially, it is a type of cognitive bias that causes us to over-value the opinion of someone we deem an expert or authority. For example, if we visit a medical doctor, we may over-value their opinion because they’re a doctor and never seek a second or third opinion. You do know that not all doctors agree on every diagnosis or the subsequent treatment, right?

Society and certain professions provide clues to those we are supposed to view as an authority. We’re supposed to view university professors as experts because they have “Dr.” before their names. We’re supposed to view senior military officers as experts because they carry the rank of “Colonel” or “General.” If you see a conservatively dressed financial professional wearing a bow-tie, do you question their advice the same as someone who wears khakis and a polo shirt or, better yet, shorts and a t-shirt?

I remember hearing about study that concluded those with a British accent were perceived by the US public as being more sophisticated and intelligent. A friend of mine who was a partner at a top consulting firm said that’s why his firm always employed someone with a British accent as the receptionist. It was in their best interest financially to portray a high level of worldly sophistication. Apparently the receptionist’s British accent made the firm’s consultants more intelligent, insightful and valuable to their clients. Wow. Talk about an authority bias.

You see society tells us that if people have a certain appearance or title or accent, then they have more expertise than the common person. For any given situation, perhaps this is true, but not necessarily. Please don’t get me wrong. I respect the position, the rank. Someone who is a PhD or a General or a COO has often worked hard to obtain their “rank.” And often those same people have a relatively high level of “expertise.” But not always. Intelligence isn’t defined by rank. Good decision-making isn’t automatic for the upper-class, the aristocracy or the elite. Remember what they call the graduating student who ranks last in his doctoral class? Doctor.

Let’s look at an example. Is having a law degree and years of practice necessary to provide sound legal advice? Perhaps. But is it also possible that an experienced lawyer can provide poor counsel? Yes. In an example like this, I often use the term “necessary but not sufficient.” Deep knowledge of the law and experience with the legal system may be necessary, but it’s not always, and rarely is, sufficient.

You should, politely, seek validation. Ask for the data so you can understand the context. Do your own research. Trust but verify. Don’t naively trust the experts. Do your own digging. Ask for other opinions. Be cautious. Develop a healthy skepticism. There’s value in learning from others and leveraging “expert advice” but it’s important to retain your ability to think critically and avoid blindly following the expertise of another.

What about you? Are you swayed by the outward appearance of experts? Their rank, degrees or title? Or do you hold your own, recognizing that, in the end, you own the decision and outcome? If you delegate the decision blindly to an “expert authority,” you may find yourself walking down an unwanted path.

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]


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