Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving A crisis in the rejection of expert knowledge, and the acceptance of “Google-fueled, Wikipedia based, Blog-sodden” information

A crisis in the rejection of expert knowledge, and the acceptance of “Google-fueled, Wikipedia based, Blog-sodden” information

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Leaders and experts who are coachable. And Not!

Expert and leadership hubris is a barrier to learning and change. I recently attended a wonderfully informative webinar with Dr Jack Zenger and Dr Joe Folkman on the “coachability” of senior leaders. I am always impressed with the sound research foundation of the Zenger-Folkman analysis and their strong connection between leadership capabilities and business performance. In this case Zenger and Folkman referenced responses from almost fifty thousand leaders and linked this feedback to business success.  Their findings are remarkable: As leaders become more senior and move up in their organizations, and are increasingly successful over time, so they tend to become less coachable – they tend to ignore, or be resistant to, feedback about their leadership performance, their behaviors and decision-making. On the other hand, those leaders that remain open to coaching and feedback are significantly more successful in the long term than those who resist feedback.

In my consulting and coaching work with senior leaders – typically on large-scale transformation initiatives – I work closely with leaders on their roles in leading transformation, from culture change to technology and structural transformations. These are often highly successful leaders with many years of business successes but who are now facing challenges requiring a change in their leadership style and behaviors – what has made them successful in the past, will not achieve success in the future. With few exceptions, I find that many leaders are resistant to feedback from their team members, as well as observations and advice from leadership coaches. Indeed, the more successful they have been over many years, the more resistant they tend to be. This lack of personal awareness has been labelled the Dunning-Kruger Effect (after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger) who researched this phenomenon and found that uninformed or incompetent people (in a particular area of expertise) are less likely to recognize their own lack of knowledge or incompetence on a particular topic.  In my anecdotal experience, it is quite common for successful leaders to express over-confidence in areas way beyond their areas of experience and expertise. Tom Nichols provides an extensive overview of various experts in one field behaving as if they are therefore experts in other areas – celebrities getting involved in complex political topics, doctors talking as experts in exercise or nutrition and experts in technological fields waying in as experts in psychological topics, amongst others.

But, just how stupid are we?

But it is not just experts and experienced leaders that can give bad advice and make poor decisions. Lay people who interact with experts are also part of the problem. It is difficult to engage in a constructive conversation with an expert when the debater has limited or superficial knowledge – this can happen in the “Google-fueled, Wikipedia based, Blog-sodden” environment we live in – many people think they know a lot, but do not.  As an immigrant to the US, I was initially shocked at comments from a friend and colleague that included some version of “never underestimate the stupidity of the American people”. The level of ignorance amongst Americans about basic civic knowledge for example, is quite alarming. According to FindLaw, a website with legal information, two-thirds of Americans can’t even name a single justice on the Supreme Court while 35% of Americans can’t name a single branch of our government. Similarly, according to a survey by Benenson Strategy Group in Washington D.C., 91% of the people surveyed said they would vote in the next presidential election even though 77% of them couldn’t even name one of the senators in their home state”.

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