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Column: The troubling flaws in how we select experts
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Column: The troubling flaws in how we select experts

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Organizations constantly scour the earth — or LinkedIn — for the talent or perfect expert to provide that fresh edge and perspective needed to overcome the obstacles to greatness.

It turns out that maybe they're looking too far afield. Perhaps the guy who can see around that corner is sitting right there.

Many of us can think of a time we shared an idea with a boss, superior or even a loved one, only to be brushed off. It's all too common.

And in the worst-case scenario, suggestions are ignored initially but implemented later — with much fanfare — only when presented by an outsider or highly paid expert. Why are these outsiders perceived to be more credible? One reason may be their anonymity.

I agree, it's irrational. The degree to which we know and trust someone should enhance his credibility. Unfortunately, it often doesn't work that way. In the words of Mark Twain, "An expert is an ordinary fellow from another town."

Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor and noted researcher on irrational behavior, said this bias is real: "Often, people give more benefit of the doubt to people who are coming from the outside."

He points to studies he has conducted on online dating. Participants were remarkably optimistic in their view of strangers. Because people know little about a dating prospect, Ariely discovered, they interpreted that relational ambiguity in pretty much any way they wanted to. Take music. If someone were to tell a date they liked music, Ariely said, the second person was likely to assume that their taste in music was similar.

"When people know little about a person, they appreciate them in a higher degree," he said.

In another study Ariely conducted on chief executive salaries, he found that CEOs who come from the outside tend to land higher pay compared to CEOs elevated from the inside. "People have more faith and trust in CEOs hired from the outside, "Ariely said. "In fact they prefer them."

So are CEOs from the outside consistently more qualified than inside candidates? Are they more devoted to the company? Not exactly.

Matthew Bidwell, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, has insight on that.

He discovered that while external hires are paid up to 20 percent more, their performance reviews were worse than their internal counterparts, according to his study in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly.

People tend to fill in mystical character gaps in ways that favor the unknown. So if you fill these gaps with pixie dust and rainbows, that person seems mystical indeed. It creates a skewed comparison. After all, what normal person can stand up against an outsider or expert made of pixie dust and rainbows?

Many leaders or teams believe their biggest challenge is simply finding that one genius with all the answers, but that groundbreaking hero could very well be already in your midst.

What if, say, you to overlook a Jony Ive in your own company?

Tangerine can relate. It is an award-winning design agency based in London. It designs all sorts of products including cellphones and kitchen sinks and has worked with big brands such as LG, Samsung, Toyota, Ciscso. It turns out, Ive worked there.

As the story goes, for years Ive's work went largely unappreciated by Tangerine's clients. In 1992, even into his career at Apple, his innovative designs just piled up and he contemplated leaving the company. Not until Steve Jobs returned to run Apple in 1997 did Ive's designs receive the recognition that would catapult them into the hands of millions of consumers.

It's worth asking: Whose potential could you be ignoring?

Justin Brady founded the Iowa Creativity Summit and lives in Des Moines, where he owns Test of Time Design. On Twitter, @JustinBrady. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

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