Nutshell: Trust, but verify: how to make the most of specialist advice

Written by
Future Talent Learning

05 Oct 2020

05 Oct 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Specialists and experts can provide much-needed advice for leaders – but we might need to rebel a bit to make the most of their suggestions and guidance.

In the pantheon of medical heroes, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis is hardly a household name. But he’s worth remembering because he represents a missed opportunity that might well have saved the lives of millions of women in childbirth.

When Semmelweis was practising in the 1850s, he was part of a medical profession moving away from thinking of illness as an imbalance caused by bad air or evil spirits. It was the age of anatomy, of numbers and data, when rationalism – the idea that reason rather than experience is the foundation of knowledge – was the order of the day. The trouble was that, before germ theory became widely accepted, there was no rational explanation for the medical problem Semmelweis set out to solve: why so many women and children were dying in childbirth of what we know today to be septicaemia.

Gamely, Semmelweis embarked on a series of experiments to try to find a solution, the sort of trial and error traditionally associated with empiricism – the idea that knowledge is based on things we experience, and can see and touch. After discounting several possible solutions, he came to believe that doctors who both conducted autopsies and delivered babies were cross-infecting the women in labour. So he suggested they should clean their hands and instruments with a chlorine solution. The result: the death rate plummeted.

We might think that the result is all that matters in this case – however arrived at and even for the wrong reasons – but no. His rationalist colleagues could make no sense of his work and rejected it. Doctors stopped disinfecting their hands, women continued to die and Semmelweis met his end in a mental asylum. His hygienic methods earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, through the work of two rather better well-known physicians: Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

It’s not a story that covers the 19th-century medical profession in glory, but we might have some sympathy for the doctors who, in the absence of any real evidence, had no reason to believe that Semmelweis was right. Even in less life-or-death situations, it can be easy to stick to what we know or seek out watertight theories and advice that promise us certainty and offer us a full audit trail when we need to make decisions – to act like a rationalist. We may even disparage ideas and solutions that seem too left field to us, that threaten to upend or challenge the status quo.

It’s a phenomenon that can be especially marked when we need to operate outside our own area of expertise and have to rely – rather like those childbearing women – on specialist advice and expertise, on experts.

A world of experts

In most jobs these days, it’s simply impossible for a single person or even team to know and do everything our organisations need to do to operate and grow. Specialisation has taken too firm a hold on our world for that to be the case. The sheer range of medical specialisms these days would leave Semmelweis reeling. In the average office, whether as internal departments or consultants and freelancers, we routinely tap into the expertise of a whole host of specialists and experts: everyone from lawyers, accountants and non-executive board members to HR experts, IT bods and the select few who understand the arcane world of Google Analytics. 

The problem is that there is often no one neat solution to the complex challenges and uncertainty we’re likely to be facing. The aphorism “Economics is the only field in which two people can get a Nobel Prize for saying the opposite thing” can feel like just the tip of the iceberg. With such a wealth and range of advice on offer, we have to develop and use our own judgement to make sense of it all, to know who, when and what to trust.

To do that, we need to learn when we need to reach out for advice; how we find the right person to help us and then – crucially – what we do with the advice that we’re given.

When to ask for advice

Sometimes, it can be hard to admit that we need help in the first place.

Research by Francesca Gino and colleagues from Harvard Business School has suggested that one of the reasons we might be reluctant to reach out is our egocentric bias, the idea that, if we ask for help from others, it might expose our own weaknesses. But, in reality, the researchers found that asking for the right kind of advice from the right person can actually have the opposite effect: it makes us seem smart, and also look good in the eyes of our colleagues and bosses.

We need, of course, to make the right decisions about soliciting the advice in the first place, working through three key considerations:

  1. Make sure the task or thinking is really something we can’t tackle ourselves: could we do/solve it ourselves with some extra effort or by moving outside our comfort zone?
  2. Seek advice from the right person.
  3. Approach the person directly, which will make them more receptive to our approach.

For Gino, when we get it right, asking for advice can be powerful. Even if we decide not to use it, having other perspectives will, in most cases, make us better equipped to decide or act.

We also need to identify those areas of operation where going it alone carries greater levels of risk or consequence, such as areas that are heavily regulated, or require specialist technical knowledge and input. For example, even a good working knowledge of employment law might not be enough if we have to handle a serious disciplinary situation or a health and safety issue; similarly, we might not be best placed to make the decision on our own about a major new software system.

Finding the right adviser

In many cases, the quickest and most direct route to getting the advice we need is to ask our colleagues, either informally or formally, depending on what we’re trying to achieve and also the size and structure of our organisation. Smaller organisations may not have specialist teams to support HR or other areas of compliance or specialism, but many will have a nominated senior leader who has responsibility for specific areas and keep on retainer consultants and advisers who can give advice on a more ad hoc basis. And sometimes simply sharing a thorny problem with someone who has no formal 'specialism', but can bring a different perspective, can be enough. 

We might also be able to find someone in our own networks who can help, especially if we have more strategic networks comprised of a wide range of people who don’t just reflect our own interests and approaches. Francesca Gino believes that we tend to seek advice from people who we think will confirm our own thinking or approach, but we’re much better off asking people who will question our ideas and force us to consider all options.

When we’re looking for more formal advice, we will want to make sure that, where necessary, our advisers have the appropriate professional qualifications or credentials. Sometimes this might be mandated – for example, lawyers or financial advisers need formal certification from the right authority – and sometimes it might be desirable. So, if we’re looking for a project manager to lead on a major new initiative for us, some form of accreditation might give us some assurance of that person’s credentials. If we need to look outside our organisations, trade bodies, regulators and professional bodies such as the UK’s Law Society often offer online directories of experts who come with a ready stamp of authority.

Once we have a professional adviser in our sights, we need to consider how good a fit they are for the task in hand. In some cases, we might check that they’ve worked with similar organisations (or departments) before and even ask for references from other clients. There is also the question of how trustworthy we consider them to be.

In their book, The Trusted Advisor, authors David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford outline how crucial it is for advisers to earn the trust of the people they’re advising. They identify four key elements of the trustworthiness this requires: credibility, reliability, intimacy (the ability to form strong relationships) and low self-orientation (the ability to put other people’s needs first). When we’re on the receiving end, we should look out for signs of how these might manifest themselves, such as the feeling that we’re being listened to actively; that the adviser is able to grasp our issue or problem and is able to frame it in helpful ways, and that they’re clear about the process for arriving at, and communicating, a solution or options.

Even if we’re working with a colleague, it’s crucial that both parties are clear about the scope of the collaboration, share and communicate their expectations and identify what the outcome/s will be. Specific terms of engagement and schedules might need to be captured in a formal contract or work plan. If the advice is to be paid for, agree the total cost and how and when payments will be made.

What next: trust, but verify

It seems almost a shame to translate the rhyming Russian proverb, Doveryay, no proveryay, but the accepted English version is: trust, but verify. It’s a mantra that might help us to decide what happens next: what we should do with any specialist advice we receive.

Experts are experts for a reason. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who have devoted their lives to making our world healthier, wealthier and safer. We’re thankful for those medical specialists when we need them; for a legal profession that upholds the law; for Dave in Accounts who keeps us financially compliant and the money rolling in.

But that doesn’t mean that we should accept everything specialists and experts tell us without question. Francesca Gino makes the point that we often look for advice when we’re unsure or even anxious about something we’re facing. But that’s not a great state of mind in which to seek it out, as our anxiety will often get in the way of sifting the good advice from the bad. We need to take our “emotional temperature” before we blindly follow what’s being suggested.

Economist and author Noreena Hertz believes that we might be especially susceptible to experts in a world where we’re all trying to make sense of “data deluge and extreme complexity”. We believe that experts are better able to process information and come up with better conclusions than we could do on our own. We have, she claims, become “addicted to experts… their certainty, their assuredness and their definitiveness”. And, in the process, we tend to cede responsibility to them, trading our own intelligence and wisdom for the “illusion of certainty they provide”.

The truth is that experts are not foolproof; they make mistakes all the time: doctors who misdiagnose; tax accountants filing incorrect tax returns; the bankers who failed to see the 2008 financial crisis coming. For Hertz, that’s because there’s a real danger that experts can form themselves into rigid camps where a dominant perspective or thinking can silence any criticism or opposition. They can also be governed by the social and cultural norms of where and when they operate which means that challenges to received wisdom and nuance are ignored. Those Semmelweis-sceptic doctors are a perfect case in point.

To counter this, Hertz exhorts us “rebel”, to switch on our “independent decision-making capabilities” using three strategies:

  1. Be ready and willing to interrogate and challenge what experts tell us, to question them and their evidence and ask them to explain things fully and clearly. A healthy dose of cynicism might be in order.
  2. Harness dissent: listen to a more diverse range of “discordant heretical views” that may be uncomfortable but might just provide some grit in the oyster.
  3. Rethink and redefine who we consider to be experts and embrace the notion of “democratized” expertise. It’s not all about those qualifications. Good advice can come from all sorts of places.

Being an acknowledged expert is not a sure-fire route to success. Consider those editors who turned down J K Rowling’s first Harry Potter book. Or Dick Rowe at record label Decca in the early sixties, whose assessment of the Beatles was that “guitar groups are on the way out”. In contrast, by being unencumbered by too much prior knowledge or experience, beginners and amateurs can be uniquely placed to see the wood for the trees or prepared to say that the emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes.

When academic and writer Philip Tetlock conducted a 20-year study of political forecasting, he found that their predictions were no better than flipping a coin – and that the pundits who specialised in a particular field tended to perform worse than those whose knowledge was more general. Just as Hertz suggests, this is about a confidence that leads them to ignore information from outside their own domain: they are extreme “hedgehogs” rather than less-sure “foxes” who are prepared to put up with a little less certainty and a bit more confusion.

It’s not that specialists and experts have no place, that they’re always wrong or that their advice is without value. But they are not super-human or always right either. Rather than looking for easy, concrete answers when we solicit specialist advice, we need to be prepared to question and challenge, to become comfortable with some level of uncertainty and doubt – and to trust our own judgement, thinking and experience too.

Ignaz Semmelweis did not prevail in his discovery, even though he could see that – empirically – it was working. But his story shows us that trial-and-error experimentation has its place alongside more hard-and-fast theories and solutions. As leaders, specialist advice will undoubtedly form part of the armoury we have to hand to help our organisations and ourselves to succeed. But we need to solicit that advice with our eyes wide open, and with a humility that accepts that, in a complex world, an empiricist mindset might sometimes be a wiser approach than always looking for rationalist perfection. Rebel-turned-statesman Václav Havel encouraged us to “Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it”. A little healthy dissent will help us to make the most of the advice we look for and receive.


Test your understanding 

  • Explain the difference between an empiricist and a rationalist approach to knowledge.
  • Describe what Francesca Gino means by egocentricity bias.
  • Outline why Noreena Hertz thinks we have become “addicted to experts”.

What does it mean for you?

  • The next time you think you need specialist advice, think about Francesca Gino’s three considerations in advance. Might this make you take a different approach?
  • Reflect on three people you might consider to be trusted advisers if you adopted Noreena Hertz’s concept of “democratized” expertise.


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