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Alex Lickerman M.D.

The Illusion Of Expertise

The difference between the presence of quality and the appearance of quality

Photo: bb_matt

In retrospect, this shouldn't have been too surprising. No matter how large a corporation becomes, no matter what personal brand it acquires, the brand doesn't run things—people do. And people, of course, are flawed (a fact I dissected in minute detail in a previous post, Your Neighbor Is An Alcoholic). I'd fallen prey to the mistaken assumption that people always try to do the right thing, are all basically competent, and that a book will be as good as its cover.

In fact, companies thrive on their customers assuming this. A good company will always strive for quality, but simultaneously strive with equal intensity for the appearance of quality. Because achieving quality and achieving the appearance of quality often require entirely separate efforts, it's not uncommon for a large disparity to develop between the two. Think of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, AIG, and all the banks now involved in foreclosure-gate. That it's easier to look accomplished and professional than to be accomplished and professional is less a testament to how easy it is to look good than how hard it is to be good.

But companies themselves (and, by extension, individuals) not only choose "books" based at least partly on the quality of their "covers," but in fact often struggle to justify to others (top management, board members, etc.) the choosing of "books" without good "covers." Even when we know we shouldn't be influenced by appearances, we are. So, for example, large companies rarely choose small companies as vendors. In fact, they rarely even interview them. The notion that Bank of America would choose a small, independent real estate professional to help them renegotiate an office lease is, at least to the executives responsible for selecting such a professional, almost ludicrous. One could certainly argue, perhaps even persuasively, that a small, independent real estate professional won't have as much experience in dealing with the kinds of issues that come up in such large transactions as Bank of America would represent. But small, independent real estate professionals often come from large conglomerate real estate firms where they worked on just those kinds of transactions. They've lost none of their experience or skill in putting out their own shingle—just the appearance of it.

Of course this kind of pre-judgment isn't fair. But even worse, it's foolish. The quality of large companies often suffers because of their size, which is often directly responsible for daily errors and omissions of communication, for example. Further, the larger the company, the more responsibility for outcomes becomes diffused, often preventing any one person from feeling accountable for the quality of any one project.

How can we recognize and master our tendency to be fooled by glitter into thinking it's gold?

  1. Recognize some effort to look professional does reflect professionalism. A true professional knows she can't avoid marketing and makes a reasonable effort to look as professional as she is.
  2. Avoid falling prey to the idea that bigger is better. Bigger often adds complexity without improving quality.
  3. Call references. I'm continually amazed how often managers skip this step when hiring. Certainly, you expect the references to be good—otherwise they wouldn't be offered. But a careful interview can uncover problems. Most people aren't comfortable lying outright and will offer an honest analysis of a candidates weaknesses (albeit a sugar-coated one) when asked. Also, listen carefully to what a reference doesn't say.
  4. Ignore any prejudices (your boss's, co-worker's, friend's, and even your own) that try to hijack your own analysis. Relying on conventional wisdom stifles critical thinking. Be aware when pressure to hire a certain vendor or person is political or has more to do with how the vendor or person looks. Most bureaucracies are dysfunctional. The only reason work gets done is that people in key positions are not only good, but care about what they're doing. The most critical factor for the success of any business is the people who work in it.

A part of us will always be influenced by fancy graphs, a good-looking face, a large balance sheet, a stellar reputation, and the opinions of others (no matter how unoriginal or automatic they may be). But such things only suggest quality. Maintaining constant awareness that the appearance and the presence of quality are two separate things, engineered in two separate (though hopefully related) ways, undoubtedly remains your best defense against allowing others to do your thinking for you and allowing yourself to be lulled into making what looks on the surface like a good choice but turns out to be far from it.

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.