Death of the Expert?

July 2017

In our previous editorial, published below, we discussed how the long-standing practice of relying on the views of experts has recently been dramatically turned on its head. But on reflection, were the outcomes really that shocking? And in the continuing tumult, caused at least in part, through the actions of people - feeling frustrated, not listened to and refusing just to go along with 'the establishment line' - having their say in a rather more authentic voice than before and perhaps being surprised at their new found influence, what are the implications for leaders – does this indeed herald the ‘Death of the Expert’?

Trust has Broken Down

With the rise of populist movements, one of the first casualties appears to have been the long-standing reliance on experts, be they financial analysts, politicians, pollsters or scientists. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that the ‘trust gap’ has widened and that, increasingly, people are rejecting established authority – which is happening alongside a steep decline in trust in business, government and media. Leaders in both the public and private sectors have been challenged, not just through scandals causing individual reputational damage, but also a more systemic questioning of their suitability and ability to lead at all. This has changed attitudes towards leaders from a previously healthy scepticism to a current position of suspicion or even hostility. This has led to an increased engagement at ground level by objectors, which is strongly driven by social media.

To compound this decline of trust, people are more likely to believe online sources over traditional media and critically, facts matter less, hence the ‘post-fact’ culture we find ourselves in. Central to this paradigm shift, is that be that content ‘real’ or ‘fake’, people increasingly gather their information from online sources that confirm their existing opinions, so they receive a narrower set of perspectives than edited ‘old media’ tended to present and accept it without question because it aligns with and supports their own views of the world.

The Disconnected Expert

How has this happened? One factor is the on-going emergence of a growing disconnect between corporate leaders, experts and politicians compared to other sections of society. These groups – the ‘ruling cadre’ if you like – are often highly inter-connected and when making decisions they tend to take a macro-view and are data reliant, looking at largely impersonal quantitative information as opposed to qualitative attitudinal information.

By contrast, individuals will make decisions on a highly-localised basis, influenced by their immediate environment and shaped by personal experience. So, even though experts may be fundamentally correct, one unforeseen outcome is that their analysis may be rejected out of hand when it is seen to contradict personal experiences.

If, as suggested, experts appear to be disconnected from such ‘local think’, no wonder they are bewildered when people make decisions that appear ‘irrational’ and contrary to all the data-based evidence available – a dilemma Vincent Bryant at WBS describes as a “lack of critical reasoning”. The disconnect is not only about the quality of any particular expertise, but a failure by experts to account for the personal factors that fundamentally determine how these groups make decisions and an increased volatility in people’s views.

The Return of the Expert?

There appears to be a growing tension or cognitive dissonance amongst broad swathes of people. They seem to be looking for radical solutions albeit set in the context of the stability of the status quo. Fast news provokes a more immediate response, which is not necessarily thought through. Rational decisions are making way for emotional ones; the challenge is more complex and fundamental than proving who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Despite the complex, post-truth world we find ourselves in, evidence-based research continues to be valued and demand for independent expertise and trustworthy leadership is as high as ever. In these tumultuous times, it is vital that leaders find a way to bridge the ‘trust gap’ and ensure their voice is heard above the din. And at a time when the tumult is growing ever more intense, Ideas for Leaders continues to ‘ride the wave’ of this tumult, by ensuring our research and work is not just contemporary, but anticipatory.

Five Steps to Bridge the Trust Gap

Do you know if there is a trust gap in your organization? Read our new, two-minute Prompt to see how leaders can take affirmative action.

1. Assess and understand: ensure localised qualitative research is undertaken, rather than relying purely on quantitative surveys. If trust issues emerge, explore in detail why that is and formulate plans with the group concerned about how they can be resolved. Restoring fractured trust is not a quick or easy job.

2. Stay open to different sources of information: informal channels have an important role to play. If we receive information that challenges our assumptions or surprises us, we are likely to gain valuable insights into how other people think and what concerns and motivates them.

3. Do not assume your analysis will be trusted: present your evidence and rationale: there will always be more than one way - what are the other options? Share, discuss and test out. Can you trial different alternatives?

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate: brief, to the point communications are effective. And keep them straightforward. Never assume explaining something once means it is understood – run regular focus groups to check the key messages have got across - and been understood. Because you have said it once does not mean it has hit the mark – don’t be afraid of repetition.

5. Keep seeking feedback: Keep measuring progress and maintaining dialogue. This is a continuous process; be open with your findings. Having a published trust gap monitor can provide a great indicator of group health and maintain a clear focus on the issues.

Leading Through Tumultuous Times

March 2017

Many commentators, in recent years, have talked about the chaotic times in which we live. Whilst chaos may initially appear random, analysis often shows there are patterns that can be identified and a certain logic emerges behind the chaos.

A vast wave is formed from a variety of elements, such as pressure and wind speed, which combine to drive the energy and power of the wave. To the human eye, a roiling ocean may seem chaotic, but its origins are never random.

When we look back at the financial crisis, it is clear that a conservative banking sector had evolved into something that proved to be very high risk. The cause, though, was readily identifiable and journalists and commentators have since established the origins behind the crisis and measures have been taken to try to prevent a recurrence.

To navigate a course through change and help inform the way forward – business, politicians and the public at large have tended to rely on the advice of subject matter experts. These experts may sometimes get things awry, but experienced analysts and forecasters continued to be seen as highly reliable. However, and in contrast to predictions made on the eve of recent plebiscites, we have seen startling outcomes.

What makes these results particularly interesting, is that in comparison to previous electoral upsets, voters seemed to deliberately ignore the professional forecasts and the prevailing ‘establishment’s ruling consensus’. As a final twist, many experts have since questioned the validity of their own predictions.

Were these outcomes a result of unforeseen chaos? Should we have been that surprised? In Western Europe and North America, there has been a gathering sense that the model of social democracy is being challenged by a populist clamour eager to be heard. As an example of a growing rift exposed by recent events, we have the whole issue of globalisation and nationalism and still wait to see how this will play out. As part of this, fresh political and territorial disputes continue to emerge.

It’s as if we have moved beyond chaotic times – where there may be no discernible pattern, into tumultuous times.


If we can’t rely on experts, who do we turn to?

Like so many of us, analysts have been confounded, even bewildered, by recent events making the future harder than ever to predict. If we can no longer have confidence in expert analysis and forecasting, how do we – whether as individuals or organisations, make informed decisions and identify clear direction?

So, what does all this have to say to organisational leaders and strategy makers? Perhaps little - if we view organisations as closed systems with impermeable barriers to the environment in which they operate. However, although many top teams apparently still work on the basis of a closed system approach, the reality is that organisations are open systems, which are buffeted about in an increasingly globalised and seemingly unpredictable world. And if our world is highly turbulent and prone to unforeseen shocks, corporate leadership has no choice but to be ready to Lead through Tumultuous Times.

That is why Ideas for Leaders has chosen this topic for 2017.

Ideas for Leaders will be drawing on its vast and contemporary library of cutting edge content to inform debate and raise issues and options designed to support C-Suite members in their thinking and planning for the year ahead.


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