Why deferring to ‘expertise’ can be dangerous

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 these sorts of discussions.

While 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 (or something) 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 boards that I sit on we think…” And while I am drawing on workplace examples, they are just as applicable in personal life where competition is used in place of connection.

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 draw 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, and 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 (not stifling) 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 a great head of HR.



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