- Focus on what matters.
- Three things matter most: establish trust, determine mutual vision, and ensure delivery. That’s it! When you help in the selling process almost everything else is a distraction.
- Answer questions if you must but do it to establish trust, determine mutual vision, and ensure delivery.
- Being an expert in the eyes of one person does not guarantee you are an expert in the eyes of another.
- Being an expert in the eyes of many people does not guarantee you are an expert in the eyes of all.
- Use expertise to benefit others before you use it to benefit yourself.
- People seek experts for one reason: to eliminate risk. So, eliminate risk.
- Identify risks, rank them, and vanquish them in order.
- If you can’t eliminate all risks (which you can’t) isolate and mitigate.
- If you can help someone, don’t wait, help quickly.
- If you can’t help someone, don’t obstruct. Clear a path for those who can.
- Stay in your lane. Don’t pretend you’re expert in subjects you are not.
- Keep it simple. If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t know it well enough.
- Challenge the status quo.
- Know the radius of your character and stay within it.
- Lift where you stand.
- Don’t expect others to get out of the way–they won’t.
- Tell the truth.
- Don’t be arrogant when you tell the truth.
- Keep secrets.
- Never violate a trust.
- Protect everyone from folly.
- Declare your recommendations with confidence.
- If you aren’t confident about your recommendations, then don’t declare them.
- Smooth the edges.
- Fix what’s broken.
- Soothe what hurts.
- Honor what is holy.
- When someone is wrong, assume ignorance before malice.
- Test and test again.
- Take care of your equipment.
- Don’t waste anyone’s time.
- Don’t assume you know the answer before you know the question.
- Don’t assume people know what they want. They rarely do.
- Don’t assume people know what you are talking about. They rarely do.
- Listen, ask, listen, talk, listen, listen, listen. In that order.
- Respect every person in the meeting, especially the least among them.
- Find the edge of human knowledge and explore further.
- Find the limits of your personal skill and stretch further.
- Make your audience feel smart.
- Answer questions with hope and optimism.
- Interpret stupid questions as valid, serious, and important.
- Never condescend.
- Know your numbers.
- If someone gives you a number, assume it’s wrong.
- Count twice.
- Do the math three times.
- Leave nothing to chance, or to the imagination.
- Avoid expressing doubt.
- Never show anger.
- Put your passion on display, your enthusiasm matters.
- Remain current in your domain.
- Read twice before sending.
- Assume your message will be forwarded.
- Assume your tone will be amplified.
- When others are doubtful, display confidence; when others are confident, be doubtful.
- Don’t praise your competitors, but don’t disparage them either.
- Avoid acronyms and technical jargon.
- Find a way to say “yes” as an alternative to saying “no.”
- Don’t criticize your colleagues.
- Don’t diminish the value of your colleagues.
- Don’t surprise anyone. You can warn, caution, inform, remind, signal, prompt, suggest, and urge, but do not surprise.
- Avoid the Hindenburg. If something is going to fail, ensure it fails fast, fails cheap, and inflicts no injury.
- Know the laws that govern your domain.
- Know the standards that inform the laws.
- Ignore distractions.
- Be discerning. Distinguish things that matter from things that don’t.
- Be enthusiastic. If you are not excited about your subject who will be?
- Maintain patience when working with the unskilled.
- Trust others and be trustworthy.
- Don’t assume your audience trusts you–they don’t.
- Don’t assume your audience will believe you–they won’t.
- Don’t assume your audience is convinced–they’re not.
- Give people a reason to listen. Don’t just talk.
- Ignore the nay-sayers, the mockers, and the haters.
- Keep it short. Don’t say “boo-hoo” when “boo” will do.
- Rejoice in the successes of others.
- Seek the consensus of other experts.
- Love what you do and do what you love.
- Practice your craft deliberately every day.
- Performing in your craft rarely counts as practice.
- Know the people who set the standards of your industry, learn from them, then set the standards for your industry.
- Remember how hard it was to learn a new skill.
- Grant people the space and time to learn a new skill. Let them crawl before they walk, and walk before they run.
- Practice with people who are better than you, until they are no longer better than you.
- Remember the end of the project is the hardest. The first 90% of the project will take 90% of the time. The other 10% of the project will take the other 90% of the time.
- Avoid sarcasm when you write, speak, and think. Pretty much always.
- Be nice. If people find you offensive, they will eventually stop finding you at all.
- Demo what your audience needs to see, not what you want to show.
- Assume the worst conditions for your demo.
- Never let them see you set up the demo or presentation. Configure everything in advance.
- Practice what you preach and preach what you practice.
- Unless you know Google will quote you as the authority, don’t say, “Google it.”
- Don’t extend vain promises.
- Focus on one person at a time. If you remain focused on one person, the world will change. If you focus on the world, no one will change.
- Act with autonomy. Do what must be done, especially when no one else will.
- Context is everything. Be certain your recommendation fits the nuance of the situation.
- Accept accountability.
- Avoid using absolutes. Words such as never, always, absolutely, completely, all, none, and impossible are rarely true.
- Avoid ambiguity. If your words can be interpreted in more than one way, assume they will be interpreted in the way that does the most harm.
- Always end where we began: establish trust, determine mutual vision, and ensure delivery.
Lessons from “The Expert: A Short Comedy Sketch”
On March 23, 2014, Lauris Beinerts posted a video on YouTube titled “The Expert, Short Comedy Sketch.” This English language version of a skit originally produced in Russian portrays five people in a business meeting discussing the requirements for a project. The video highlights some of the difficulties faced by subject matter experts and openly mocks nonexperts. It quickly became popular online and has been viewed tens of millions of times.
In the years since its release, the video has amassed large scale support. Most reactions to the video applaud the wisdom of the expert and point out the lunacy of the other characters. An article on cNet, for example, summarized the typical reaction, “This is how an engineer feels when he’s surrounded by idiots.” Expert gloating, unfortunately, does not help subject matter experts who genuinely want to excel in client meetings. Imbedded in this skit are at least ten lessons which all experts should consider to better understand their roles.
Lesson #1: Don’t start with “No.” In the skit, the first word out of Anderson’s mouth, indeed his first utterance, is “no.” Experts should never start with a “no.” Of course experts must say “no” from time to time, but they needn’t start with it. And, as if starting badly was not bad enough, one minute later Anderson uses another negative word which should be forbidden from expert vocabulary, “impossible.” Anderson, the expert, uses the words “no” and “impossible” before asking his first question. Colleagues cringe when experts do this, and with good reason. There are endless accomplishments which occurred after experts declared them impossible. David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, put it this way, “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.” Experts should never, ever, start with “no.”
Lesson #2: Pick the easiest path. When a project’s requirements are soft, ambiguous, or contradictory (which they often are) the expert should recommend easy options. Experts should never impose or accept difficult requirements if they are not actually required. This should be so obvious that it needn’t be mentioned. But Anderson, the expert, heard “seven perpendicular lines” and then imposed his own requirement that all seven lines be perpendicular to each other. In this case the requirements were as flimsy as tissue paper. Anderson could have recommended any number of plausible options, but he imposed the hardest one. Experts often make things far harder than they need to be.
Lesson #3: Expect scope creep. Great experts expect projects and assignments to expand therefore they find ways to embrace it. Anderson, like so many other experts, was dumbfounded when the designer added to the scope. Anderson acted offended and flabbergasted at the mere notion of scope creep. The weakest of SMEs shun scope creep. They think projects should always remain exactly as originally envisioned. Better SMEs accept and effectively manage scope creep. The best SMEs, however, find ways to embrace scope creep and even encourage scope creep when it benefits all parties.
Lesson #4: Great experts effectively represent their organization’s skills, not just their own. When the client asked for a line to be drawn in the form of a kitten, Anderson claims it’s impossible. “A line and a cat are two entirely different things!” Well, no kidding. She didn’t ask you to magically make a cat. She asked you, the line expert, to draw a line in the form of a kitten. What is Hello Kitty if not a few lines in the form of kitten? Just because Anderson can’t draw kittens (a simple task which brings into question his overall expertise) doesn’t mean his entire organization is void of cat-drawing skills. In this case Anderson rambles about his skills and fails to expand his vision to the skills of his entire organization.
Lesson #5: Be aware of the definition of a word. Don’t assume that your definition of a word or phrase is understood in the same way by all parties. This is particularly important when working across language or cultural boundaries. Many problems occur when people define words differently. There is a lot of discussion in the video about what it means for two lines to be perpendicular but there is no discussion about the definition of a line itself. While Anderson emphasizes the difficulty of drawing seven perpendicular lines, he never entertains the difficulty of drawing one single line. A high school algebra teacher will tell you that a “line” is straight and infinite. The customer did not ask for “line segments,” she asked for “lines.” What definition are we using?
Lesson #6: Embrace your role as an expert beyond your expertise. Be prepared to respond graciously when asked questions outside your particular field. Experts should be flattered when people ask for their opinion. Anderson acts aghast that the customers and colleagues do not know precisely where his particular skills begin and end. It is not as obvious as the expert may suppose.
Lesson #7: Make recommendations. Unfortunately it took Anderson five minutes and the impolite prompting of Walter before he offered his first recommendation.
Lesson #8: Remain calm. On this subject, Anderson is inconsistent. Anderson is not fazed when his colleagues condescend to him with comments like, “what are we in kindergarten,” and “You are the expert.” Nor does he respond negatively when the client is patronizing. But, when project requirements are ambiguous Andersen gets rattled. Don’t get wound up in stressful situations.
Lesson #9: Don’t lie. Some experts assume their company expects them to tell the client only what the client wants to hear, even to the point of lying. It is never a good idea to lie about what you can and cannot do. Anderson concludes the video by claiming that he can do anything. He is either being sarcastic or he is lying. Neither option is good. Don’t make that mistake.
Lesson #10: Don’t be sarcastic. Anderson’s sarcasm may be funny in the video but it often ends poorly with clients. Don’t do it. You can be sarcastic with your friends, but when it comes to client meetings don’t do it.
It is easy to mock the idiocy of the non-experts in this video. Any project manager who watches will recognize that he is being mocked. A creative director or sales director will see that they are being mocked as well. What is truly remarkable, however, is the fact that the expert is also being stereotyped and mocked along with everyone else, yet very few expert viewers allow themselves to see it. Most experts think the skit is funny because they are smart, like Anderson, and everyone else is stupid. The joke, however, is on the expert because the mockery of the expert is subtle and few experts are willing to acknowledge it.
A dictionary will tell you that an “expert” is someone who has more than average knowledge of a subject, someone who can provide superior results, or someone recognized as a reliable source of information. What the dictionary does not tell you, however, is that people often disagree about who is expert and who is not. The word is intentionally vague. There is no single diploma or degree for being an expert, no single standardized test, no clearly defined finish lines. Professor James Shanteau, of Kansas State University, summarized the problem of identifying experts in a 2002 article (pdf) in the European Journal of Operational Research. In the paper he asks, “Although experts have been studied for over a century, there remains a critical unanswered question — how can we describe who is, and who is not, an expert?” He then enumerates nine different ways researchers have identified experts. Even amoung researchers, it seems that someone can be designated an expert for nearly any reason.
In some domains it is easy to identify the experts. Objective criteria allow observers to measure who is best and who is not. When discrete measurements are available, experts will often exhibit superior performance in the dimension of the metric. A chess master, for example, can win against lesser skilled competitors. Professional golfers and tennis players can outperform challengers. Medical specialists are more likely than junior practitioners to diagnose a disease correctly.
In other domains, however, the identification of an expert is highly subjective and almost impossible to measure. Experts on foreign policy, law, accounting, finance and many other fields will provide differing and often contradictory recommendations. Wall Street, for example, is filled with experts who attempt to pick high performing stocks, yet they fail nearly as often as they succeed. When objective criteria are not available, a person is broadly accepted as an expert when a sufficiently large number of people grant the title or when the person has practiced or studied in a field for as sufficiently long period of time.
There are, of course, some people who are universally recognized experts. The late Clyde Tombaugh is the astronomer who discovered Pluto. Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine. Stephanie Kwolek invented bullet proof Kevlar. Mohamed Ali was an expert fighter and Whitney Houston an expert singer, and so forth. Few people who study these remarkable people would dispute that they were experts in their fields.
Unlike industry titans, however, most experts are not renowned. Most experts quietly serve their companies, customers, communities, and families. In a business setting, for example, the expert is the one who can answer important questions correctly and reliably. If Chris knows the most about a business system, then Chris is the resident expert on that system. If Jordan has been involved in a project since its inception and remembers many of the key decisions, then Jordan is the expert. These experts rarely seek public notoriety, and their expertise may be constrained to a very narrow subject, but they are experts.
Herein, is one of the powerful attributes of the title expert. Anyone can be an expert, and anyone can make you an expert. You are not an expert because you think you are, you are an expert because someone else thinks you are. And when just one person thinks you are an expert, you are, to that person, an expert. Being expert in the eyes of one person does not make you an expert in the eyes of many. And, being an expert in the eyes of many people does not make you an expert in the eyes of all. You must earn the distinction repeatedly with every person you meet, with every interaction.
Being an expert is a subjective concept; it is the idea that you have value, that you are different, that you can be trusted, that your recommendations are worthy of consideration, that your opinion counts. Being an expert to the right person, the one person who needs you, can be more important and more life-changing than being an expert for many people. Where there is an expert, there is trust. Where there is an expert there is a leader. Where there is an expert there is inspiration.
Despite evidence to the contrary, your audience may not be stupid.
Many years ago, an elderly friend was relocating to a city in Michigan. In preparation for his move, he contacted a real-estate agent and scheduled several home viewings. On the appointed day he spent four hours with the agent riding through neighborhoods and walking through homes. As they drove, the old man noticed that there were a several houses proudly displaying flags from the local university. Thinking he would have a little fun with the real-estate agent, the old man asked, “What is that blue flag with the big yellow M?”
The agent politely responded, “Sir, that is the flag of the University of Michigan. The school’s football team is playing a game this weekend and some people display the flag to show their support.”
“Oh, I see.” The old man responded.
About twenty minutes later, when another flag was visible, the man asked the agent again, “What is that blue flag with the big yellow M?”
With perfect courtesy the agent responded, “Oh, that sir, is the flag of the University of Michigan. The university football team is playing a game this weekend and some people display the flag to show their support for the team.”
“Oh, I see.” The old man responded, again.
Again, thirty minutes later another flag was visible and the old man asked the same question. And, in response the agent offered another polite response.
During his four-hour drive with the agent, the old man asked the same question four separate times. Each time he kept a straight face and acted as senile as possible. And, each time the agent remained unflustered. Ultimately the old man bought a home, the agent earned a generous commission, and the old man never confessed to teasing the agent during their lengthy drive. For many years the man relished that experience as one of his most enjoyable pranks.
At some point in your experience as an expert, you may genuinely believe that your audience has a memory problem, some other disorder, or that they are mentally challenged. Regardless of the situation, it is important that you avoid the temptation of concluding that your audience is stupid, even despite overwhelming evidence that they are.
As soon as experts decide an audience is stupid they will begin to exhibit arrogance. If you cannot find any redeeming characteristics, remember, they are smart enough to listen to you.
The Lac-Mégantic train disaster took the lives of 47 people. There are lessons in the ashes of the deadliest freight train accident in Canadian history.
On the evening of July 5, 2013, Thomas Harding, a locomotive engineer working for the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), parked his heavily laden train near the small town of Nante, Quebec, Canada. Hardy was the sole crew member and was therefore responsible for operating the five locomotives and 69 cars carrying high-grade crude oil to a refinery in New Brunswick. At the end of his shift, Hardy shut down the engines in four of the five locomotives and set their brakes.
An engine had been running poorly throughout the day. It was spewing dark black soot and oil droplets from its smoke stack. Hardy contacted the railroad traffic control center, reported the mechanical issues, and advised them that the train was secured on the main track. Hardy and the traffic controller agreed that he should leave the faulty engine running throughout the night and investigate the mechanical issues in the morning.
The tracks at Nante are not flat. The 1.2% grade is steep enough for trains to roll if not properly secured. With the lead engine still running, the air brakes would remain pressurized keeping the train in place. For added safety all train cars are equipped with manual braking systems. Transportation safety regulations required that enough handbrakes be applied to the individual cars to keep the train in place, with or without the air brakes. Setting all the hand brakes, however, would require Hardy to walk the length of the train, manually engaging each hand brake along the way. At three minutes per car, applying all the hand brakes on a train this large would take hours for one man. Instead, Hardy set the hand brakes on only a few of the cars, walked to a waiting taxi cab, and departed for his hotel.
Before midnight, a passerby in Nante noticed flames coming from the smokestack of the idling locomotive. The person called 9-1-1 and Canadian dispatchers sent police and firefighters to the scene. By the time a firetruck arrived, flames were pouring from locomotive’s smoke stack and black smoke was thick around the engines. The firefighters quickly extinguished the fire, shut down the idling engine, and contacted MMA about the incident. In response, MMA sent a track maintenance representative to investigate. Once there, the maintenance representative reported to police and MMA that the train was secure. Everyone departed before 12:30am.
With all the engines shut down the air pressure in the brake lines began to decrease. At 12:56am the air pressure was insufficient to hold the train and the 74 cars started rolling down the tracks toward Lac-Mégantic. Without engine power the train had no lights and no automatic brakes. The 10,000-ton train quickly built momentum.
At 1:14am the train entered the town of Lac-Mégantic. The speed limit for trains at the bend in the center of town was 10 mph but the train was racing at 65 mph by that time. When the train reached a sharp curve it immediately jumped the tracks and careened into nearby shops and offices. Nearly all of the tanker cars followed leaving the tracks one after another at the same corner. The tankers smashed into one another rupturing their containers and bursting into flames. Thousands of tons of burning fuel poured through the streets of the small town, into buildings, down the town’s storm drainage systems, and across an adjacent lake. One fire ball after another engulfed the downtown region of Lac-Mégantic. Forty seven people were quickly incinerated in the flames. A local café was completely engulfed along with all its occupants. Explosions were felt miles away and flames reached hundreds of feet into the sky.
150 firefighters were summoned to the accident scene. Flames and explosions raged for hours throughout the town, and it took two full days to completely extinguish the burning homes, offices, shops, and fuel. Thousands of the town residents were evacuated and most of the town’s 100+ downtown buildings were completely destroyed. The Lac-Mégantic disaster is the deadliest freight train accident in Canadian history.
The Trial for Criminal Negligence
Four years after the accident, in September 2017, Thomas Harding, and two of his colleagues, Jean DeMaitre and Richard Labrie, were put on trial for criminal negligence. In the case the prosecution argued that all three men knew about the train’s mechanical issues and that none of the men took proper precautionary measures to secure the parked train. The trial stretched several months with scores of witnesses and expert testimony.
On January 11, 2018, the jurors started their deliberation. Should Hardy, Labrie, and DeMaitre, be found guilty of criminal conduct and sentenced to prison? That question vexed the 12 person jury. On January 19, after eight days of deliberation and multiple expressions of impasse, the 8 men and 4 women jury came to the verdict of not guilty. The state had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the men were guilty of a crime.
Lessons for Experts
As with any large-scale tragedy, there are lessons for experts in the ashes of Lac-Mégantic. Experts of almost every discipline face situations where they must bring objects to a stop, and once stopped they must keep them stopped. Oncologists try to stop the ravages of cancer and keep their patients cancer free. Technology professionals work to stop computer viruses and thereafter ensure their corporate networks remain clean and secure. Environmentalists try to stop global warming. Law enforcement officers try to stop violent crime. Civil rights activists seek to stop racism. And on. Here are just three ideas which experts may consider when moving and stopping objects or problems in their disciplines.
1) Nothing stays at rest forever. Isaac Newton’s first law of motion says that every object will remain at rest unless compelled to change by some force. This may be true, but everything is being compelled by force to change. Forces tug on people and objects without ceasing. Our entire world is a place of turbulent change. Trains and automobiles have parking brakes because they will always yield to gravity. Boats have anchors because they will yield to the tide. Few objects are truly static or stationary. Things move. Nothing stays in one place forever.
As in the case of Lac-Mégantic, destruction comes when an object appears to be at rest and the expert assumes that that object will remain at rest. Locomotive engineers should never assume that a resting train will remain so. Oncologists should never assume that a cancer patient once cured will remain cured. Network administrators should never assume that a computer system once secured, will remain secured. Nothing stays at rest forever.
2) Don’t move objects if you can avoid it. Trains, obviously, must move. They exist for the sole purpose of movement, but not all objects are so. Experts might always consider measures which minimize movement. New products should be designed with the minimum number of moving parts, and processes should also minimize possible movement.
An interior home painter once explained to me that he avoids removing objects from surfaces before painting. If a handrailing is mounted on wall, he paints around it. If a light fixture is mounted in the ceiling, he paints around it. “Once you move something,” he said, “there is a good chance you’ll never get back in the same place. You are far faster and safer if you don’t move something in the first place.”
3) If you must move something, ensure there are multiple ways to stop the movement. As demonstrated at Lac-Mégantic, once a train starts to move it can be difficult to stop. The MMA train had five cars with propulsion and 74 cars with brakes, but even that was insufficient to divert the catastrophe. Experts should never start something unless they are equipped with multiple means of stopping it.
This rule applies to moving people as well as objects. Moving objects can be dangerous, but moving people can be catastrophic. The law of unintended consequences states that unforeseen outcomes frequently follow purposeful action. People are dynamic creatures. They can be moved physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Once people start something, we can be terribly ill-equipped to reverse the actions. Experts should never start an action if they are not certain they can stop it.
The disaster at Lac-Mégantic is an unambiguous example of the perils of uncontrolled motion. Forty-seven people lost their lives. Their families and loved ones will never be the same. Thomas Harding, Jean DeMaitre and Richard Labrie may have been acquitted of criminal negligence, but they too paid an emotional toll for the disaster. May all experts in all disciplines avoid similar circumstances.
The NFL has a concussion problem. The league may not be able to fix it, but all experts should glean an important lesson from the crisis which could dismantle the entire sport.
The NFL’s concussion problem continues. On Sunday, December 10, 2017, Tom Savage, the quarterback for the Houston Texans, was hit in the offensive backfield was left twitching on the ground. He exited the game briefly but returned minutes later. Once back on the field, it was evident to officials that Savage was suffering the effects of a neurological injury. He was removed again and taken to the locker room for evaluation. A week later Savage did not return to the field for the Texan’s next game. Savage’s brief return to the field has renewed suspicions that the league is unable or unwilling to protect players from brain injuries.
For several years the NFL has been under scrutiny for brain injuries among players. In 2013 the NFL reached a $1 billion settlement with former players who suffered ill health attributable to brain injuries. The league has also changed several game rules in hopes of reducing head injuries. They have instituted stiff penalties and fines for high risk forms of tackling and hitting. The league has also created an independent scientific advisory board to identify and support leading research in concussions and brain injuries. They have announced $100 million in funding toward scientific research in brain related injuries. They have educated coaches and trainers to help identifying injuries.
One action the league has taken since 2013 is the introduction of neurological experts. Independent head-injury experts are now on the sidelines of each game with concussion assessment authority. This includes trained medical experts in the press boxes who help identify players who may have suffered a head injury. The neurological experts are authorized to remove players from the field, perform prolonged injury assessments, and withdraw players from games regardless of what the players, coaches, or team doctors may say.
Of course, neurologists on the sideline of a football game cannot eliminate head injuries on the field. They can, however, assist players when an injury occurs, and reduce the chance that an injury becomes worse. The most important treatment for concussion is rest, which is antithetical to NFL culture. It is unlikely therefore that players, coaches, or team staff, who are motivated to win games can consistently protect a players’ long-term health and the league’s best interest.
This of course is where the NFL’s independent neurologists have an important role. Given adequate authority and autonomy the neurologists can protect players from the catastrophe of wide spread debilitating brain injuries. Quickly diagnosing head injuries and prescribing treatment, which in most cases means the player’s removal from the field, may be bitter for the teams and the fans, but highly beneficial to the players and league.
Ergo, the mistake with Tom Savage was an important event for the NFL and an important lesson for all other experts more broadly.
One role that experts often play is the position of expert sentry. Sentries pass judgment and approve or deny entry. Due to their unique training or experience, experts are frequently put into this gatekeeping position where they are authorized and expected to guard an organization from unwanted people or things. Organizations have used expert sentries throughout history and in almost every industry. Corporate recruiters who make hiring decisions are expert sentries. Judges who approve or deny search warrants are expert sentries. Doctors who select patients for clinical trials are expert sentries. And of course, neurologists on the sideline of NFL games are expert sentries.
Of course, experts also wear other hats. NFL neurologists, for example, don’t just say to athletes, “Yes, you may play.” Or, “No, you may not.” They prescribe treatment. They council with other doctors and trainers. They do what they can to ensure the health and safety of the players. But in the narrow role of sentry their decisions are binary. They decided if someone is in or out, approved or denied.
As simple as a binary decision may appear to an outsider, there are often weighty factors which contribute to any sentry’s decision. Because of complexities and the lack of immediate information, it can be difficult for sentries to ensure their decisions are reliable and consistent. Sentries may occasionally deny admission to one person who should have been admitted, while granting admission to another person who should have been denied. Binary decisions carry the risk of false positives as well as false negatives, and both types of errors can be vexing for the best experts and their organizations.
For sentries, one type of error is almost always more desirable than the other. In the NFL, for example, when a neurologist decides that a player has a brain injury, when in fact the player does not, the diagnosis is a “false positive” and the player is unnecessarily removed from a game. In this case the health consequence of a false positive is benign. There is no risk of hurting a player by treating him unnecessarily for a concussion. Of course the false positive does carry other negative implications but not regarding the player’s health.
False negatives in the NFL (falsely judging a player to be fit for play when he is actually seriously injured) can have catastrophic consequences for the players, the teams, and the league. Long-term health problems and premature death are just a few problems connected with concussion. The lopsided difference between a false positive and a false negative should lead to a diagnosis bias in favor of false positives. NFL neurologists should be expected to err on the side of caution and remove players from games on the suspicion of concussion, even if one does not exist, and should not allow players to return to games unless they are certain the player is fully healthy. This is why Tom Savage’s return to the game in Houston is so alarming. The decision was in error and the diagnosis bias was insufficient.
All experts who serve as sentries are subject to error, both false positives and false negative. And, as important as it is for sentries to make the right decision, it is even more important that sentries make the better of the wrong decisions. It is better to remove a healthy NFL player from the field than to allow an injured player to compete. It is better to wrongly ground an airplane than to wrongly put an airplane in the sky. It is better for a court of law to wrongly acquit than wrongly convict. Both decisions are wrong, but one error is more egregious than the other. One decision is the right-wrong and other is the wrong-wrong.
Taking a page from the NFL playbook, experts need to know when they are playing the role of sentry and what their binary decisions can be. They need to understand and abide the decision bias, and avoid above all else, making the wrong-wrong decision. The players need expert sentries to protect them from themselves. And, the league needs expert sentries to ensure the long-term viability of the entire sport.
Over the centuries experts have made some colossal errors. Here are just a few that stand out.
Great Chinese Famine: Trofim Lysenko was a Russian agriculture researcher who worked as the Director of the USSR Institute of Genetics during the Stalin era. In the 1950s Chinese agricultural policy makers followed Lysenko’s dogma regarding food production. Based upon Lysenko’s theories, China adopted new farming policies which banned private farming and changed farming processes. At the same time, China experienced draught conditions in much of the country. Food production dropped dramatically. As a result, between 1958 and 1962 as many as 36 million Chinese citizens starved to death. Trofim Lysenko was considered an expert in genetics and food production yet he was responsible for the starvation of tens of millions on multiple continents.
Bhopal: Warren Andersen was the CEO of Union Carbide on December 2, 1984 when one of the company’s chemical facilities in the highly populated city of Bhopal experienced a disastrous pesticide leak. 32 tons of toxin leaked into the atmosphere. Over 550,000 people were exposed to the chemicals and 4,000 or more, deaths occurred. Anderson was charged with manslaughter by Indian authorities, declined to appear in Indian court hearings, and was declared a fugitive from justice. Until his death in 2014, Anderson denies any personal wrongdoing, but his life and leadership are permanently affixed to the Bhopal disaster.
WMDs: Khidir Hamza was an Iraqi born scientist who worked for Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a young man he was educated in the US. He claims to have led Iraq’s nuclear weapons programs. Following the first gulf war, Hamza defected to the US. In 2002 he testified before the US Senate that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, more than ten tons of uranium, and that they could build nuclear weapons within three years. These statements were used by the US government as part of their justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately Hamza’s testimony was false. He misled the United States and contributed to the ill advised decision to initiate the second gulf war.
Gettysburg: General James Longstreet knew that the Battle of Gettysburg would end poorly for his Confederate Army. He told his commanding officer, General Robert E. Lee, that their forces would fail to over power the Union forces. “No fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take [the Union] position,” he told Lee. Nevertheless, General Lee commanded the attack across a mile of open terrain. In just three days, half of Longstreet’s forces would be dead or wounded.
Bloodletting: Removing blood from patients as treatment for nearly any malady was embraced for nearly 3,000 years. The precise origin of the practice are not certain, but one doctor significantly influenced its prevalence. Galen of Pergamum lived in 200 AD and was the most renowned physician of his time. His prolific writings embraced and reinforced the practice of bloodletting. His works were translated and studied throughout the middle ages. It was not until the 19th century that the practice was finally rejected at scale.
Apollo 1: In 1963 Joseph Shea was assigned to managed the design and construction of the Apollo space craft. Three years later the crew of Apollo 1 expressed concern about the amount of flammable material inside the oxygen rich cabin. In response, Shea ordered the removal of the materials from the craft but five months later the material remained. On January 27, 1967, during a launch simulation, the materials caught fire. Due to faulty design, the crew was unable to open the cabin’s door, resulting in the death of all three crew members.
Fidenae Stadium: The wooden amphitheater of Fidenae, in ancient Greece, was constructed in 27 AD by the entrepreneur Atilius. After a temmporary ban on gladiator games was lifted, tens of thousands of spectators flocked to the stadium to witness the earliest events. Filled beyond capacity, the stadium collapsed killing or injuring more than 20,000 people. The Roman Senate responded to the disaster with new building codes and inspecions. Atilius was banished.
Chernobyl: Anatoly Stepanovich Dyatlov was the deputy chief engineer at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant for 13 years before the fateful day of April 26, 1986. Contrary to the advice of at least two subordinates, he ordered the continuation of the ill fated nuclear experiment which melted down reactor #4 and caused the death of thousands of people, the forced relocation of 350,000, and the contamination of living quarters of 5,000,000. As the primary cause of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, a Soviet court sentenced Dyatlov to 10 years in prison. (more info)
Halifax: Aimé Le Médec was the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc cargo vessel. On Dec 6, 1917 the ship was fully loaded with explosives in route to France. While entering the Halifax harbor, the ship collided with the outgoing vessel, SS Imo. As a result of the collision the Mont-Blanc caught fire which ignited the explosive cargo on board. The resulting blast was the largest man-made explosion to that date in history. A 1,100 pound section of the ship’s anchor was thrown 2.5 miles inland. 2,000 people were killed and nearly 10,000 injured. The ship’s captain was assigned blame for not taking actions that could have averted the catastrophe.
Countrywide: Angelo Mozilo has become the poster child of the greed and scandal that rocked the financial industry in the subprime mortgage crisis. As co-founder of Countrywide, he engaged in aggresive lending practices and derivative selling. The company grew to become the largest mortgage lender in America. Mozilo obtained backing and favor in Washington D.C. through zero interest ‘loans’ to political officials. He is one of few financial industry executives who faced criminal charges in connection with the financial crisis. In 2010 he agreed to pay settlement and industry bans rather than go to trial.
In 1995, McArthur Wheeler robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight and made his escape. Remarkably, he looked directly at multiple security cameras during the robberies with no attempt of covering his face. His picture was broadcast that evening on the 11pm news and he was arrested an hour later. Investigators later learned that Wheeler had rubbed lemon juice on his face and was under the impression that doing so would make him invisible to cameras. He reasoned that lemon juice can be used as an invisible ink on paper, so if he rubbed it on his entire face he would become invisible to cameras. This type of amazing ignorance is surprising, but sadly not unusual.
Prompted by Wheeler’s bank robbery, two researchers from Cornell University, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, began studying the accuracy of self-assessment. They wondered how people could be such poor judges of their own abilities. Their research was published in a 1999 report titled, “Unskilled and Unaware of It.”
Now dubbed the Dunning–Kruger effect, these researchers explored an important concept that all experts should know and recognize. It is human nature for unskilled people to be horribly poor judges of their own ability. They fail to recognize their own lack of skill and are poor judges of the skills of others. This is true across any discipline or industry. Whether we are talking about dancers, painters, sociologists or mathematicians, the lowest quartile of performers have the most inflated opinion of their own ability.
This phenomenon can be particularly frustrating for experts. Time and again you will encounter uneducated, untrained, or unskilled people who think, speak, and act as if they are proficient, when they clearly are not. Charles Darwin recognized this phenomenon when he penned, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
As an expert you might prefer that the unskilled people around you knew they were unskilled. But this, unfortunately, is not to be. Experts should expect unskilled people to have inflated opinions of their own capability. That is, simply, the way it is. Yet too often experts are surprised and even aghast when they encounter the “unskilled and unaware.”
Unfortunately, there is very little an expert can do to quickly reverse the Dunning-Kruger effect. Confronting the novice will not rectify an inflated perception. Telling the untrained that they are untrained more often fosters resentment than cooperation. Pointing out the failings of the beginner will not reduce his opinion of himself, but it will reduce his opinion of you.
It turns out that there is one remedy to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but it takes time to accomplish. The remedy to Dunning-Kruger is proficiency. The better trained a person is at a task the better judge she becomes of her own skill. And, once a person becomes proficient his perception of his skills becomes more accurate. Through this process he also gains an appreciation for the skills of the truly expert.
It is almost always the least skilled people who hold the highest degree of illusory superiority. Even the moderately skilled individuals maintain a higher opinion of themselves than is justified. It is only the truly proficient who underestimate their own abilities.
Bullies and perverts are destroying the one thing that matters most to experts: trust
Years ago a close friend, Rachel, told me that she had been raped by her next-door neighbor. She was fourteen years old when the crime occurred, and the neighbor was in his 30s. She told me two years after the fact. To my knowledge, I was the first and only person she told. I was seventeen.
Unfortunately, my reaction did not help her. I was immediately filled with anger. Her abuser was a man I knew and who still lived just one door away from her. She immediately regretted telling me, “I shouldn’t have told you about this.” she said. “Please just forget it. And, please, please, don’t tell anyone else.” She was ashamed and afraid.
In the weeks that followed I wanted to speak with my parents about the revelation, or her parents, but Rachel asked me repeatedly not to. So instead of helping her in a constructive manner, I fretted about getting even with the man who assaulted her. Rachel trusted me with her most horrific personal experience and I reacted with anger and hostility which only reinforced her desire to hide.
Decades later, I do not know the full impact of the assault on Rachel’s life. She eventually married and had a family. I hope her life has been happy and complete. I do not know. What I do know, however, is that the experience racked her for years with shame and embarrassment. I also know that upon learning about her assault I was personally paralyzed with indecision, rage, and helplessness.
We are now witnessing, on a near daily basis, the disclosure of famous and powerful people who are sexual predators. The scope of abuse and manipulation allegedly perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein and others is astonishing. Weinstein has been charged with sexually assaulting over a dozen women. The fact that men have maintained positions of industry leadership for decades, while systematically abusing many people, speaks to the depravity of the perpetrators and the degeneracy of the people who facilitate these crimes.
In the wake of these ongoing revelations, all experts should take special note. It is not just Hollywood movie producers who are inclined to exercise dominance, control, or manipulation. It is not just the politicians, journalists, or comedians who sexually assault their victims. Unfortunately, it is the nature and disposition of many people, regardless of industry or background, that as soon as they have assembled any degree of power or influence they will immediately begin to exercise that power for self-gratification.
Of course, sexual assault is horrific. No person should experience it. Perpetrators should be punished harshly and the victims deserve our utmost love, compassion, and support. But there is another dimension to sexual assault which is rarely discussed, but which is particularly important to experts.
Sexual assault destroys trust, and trust is the expert’s most valuable asset. Trust is more important to experts than technical prowess or industry changing ideas. The most important advantage experts can attain is the faith, confidence, and admiration of others. When people trust experts, they seek the experts’ advice, they value their opinion, and they do what the experts recommend. When people don’t trust experts, they discount their opinions, close communications, avoid contact, and reject what the experts say.
So, it befits every expert to recognize that many people are viewing you through the lenses of distrust because they have been abused. They do not trust you, not because you are not trustworthy, but because they have been robbed of the ability to do so. They do not trust because they have been cheated of the enduring comfort of trusting relationships.
It was not Rachel’s fault, decades ago, when she was raped as a fourteen-year-old child. And it is not her fault today if, as a lasting consequence, she has difficulty trusting the people who live next door to her. As an expert, if you treat everyone you meet as if they will have difficulty trusting you, you will be right most of the time. People in your audience may want to trust you, you may be completely trustworthy, but for them trust is an anemic concept that has been wrung out by abuse, trauma, illness, or neglect.
When I was seventeen and learned that one of my best friends was the victim of sexual assault and I reacted poorly. I assumed that her experience was rare. I was wrong. Great experts know better. Great experts lift and inspire and motivate and encourage. Great experts provide peace where there is fear, understanding where there is confusion, confidence where there is doubt, beauty where there is ugliness and despair. Great experts give people a reason to trust, even when trust is difficult to find.
Being invited to participate in a meeting with a customer should be considered an honor by any subject matter expert. Maybe you were invited by an account manager who needs assistance answering a prospect’s technical questions. Maybe a sales executive wants to demonstrate that your company possesses multiple layers of competence. Maybe the assigned sales engineer is unavailable and you are the logical backup. Maybe the CEO wants you to have experience listening to customers directly. Whether the meeting was scheduled to secure a new contract, kick off a new project, or resolve a vexing problem, someone thought you should attend. This is not a trivial endorsement of your knowledge or skills. Your colleagues probably had the option of including you, or including someone else, or including no subject matter expert at all, but they chose you. When you receive the invitation, you should accept with enthusiasm. Your colleagues want this meeting to go well and that starts with people who want to be there. Nobody wants an SME with an attitude. Regardless of your other deadlines or challenges, the meeting should be a high priority. A meeting with a customer does not interfere with your other work; it is the reason for your other work. Few things are more important than helping and delighting the customer.
Here are ten things every SME should do while meeting with a customer:
#1 Build Trust: When you ask colleagues about the objective of a meeting, they will probably respond with something like, “The client has technical questions about our proposal.” Or, “New equipment is scheduled for delivery and they need to understand the installation.” The objectives are typically tactical. Your colleague will probably not say, “We need to increase their trust in us.” But as an expert, your highest order of business is increasing trust. You will not accomplish any other goals if you do not first have mutual trust.
#2 Stick to the Objective: Every meeting should have clear goals and you need to know exactly what those goals are. Far too many SMEs assume they know why they are attending the meeting when in actuality, they do not. If the person inviting you to the meeting did not explain why they want you there, then you need to find out. Once you know the objectives, you should ensure that your words and gestures help accomplish those objectives. Don’t assume you know what your colleagues want from the meeting. Clarify the goals in advance and help everyone achieve them.
#3 Demonstrate Knowledge: In 1597, Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” An important ingredient to building trust is knowledge. Your audience will not trust you or do what you recommend if they are not confident you know what you are talking about. You must know your subject thoroughly, and then you must demonstrate that knowledge without conceit, arrogance, or condescension. Avoid giving away unnecessary free consulting, but show that you know your subject. Of equal importance, show that you know your customer’s business, their goals, their needs, and their risks and fears.
#4 Ask Questions: Regardless of how much preparation you make before a meeting, during the meeting you’ll need to ask questions. Don’t start giving advice or explaining solutions until you have obtained a thorough understanding of the situation by asking pointed questions. You might follow the tenet that three questions should precede any guidance. Asking direct, tactful and helpful questions will simultaneously demonstrate that you have interest in the customer and that you have mastered your subject.
#5 Teach: There is a difference between telling a customer and teaching a customer. Experts are notoriously guilty of just telling customers facts without truly teaching. When you tell a customer, you convey information without regard for their own comprehension or mastery of the information. Teaching, on the other hand, puts the customer’s needs first. You respectfully go at their pace and according to their receptivity.
#6 Say Yes: Saying no is easy. Maybe that’s why “no” is so prevalent among experts. But, most experts should purge the word from their vocabulary. The word “No” shuts things down. It ends the conversation. “No” dampens interest, excitement, and enjoyment. People hate nay-sayers and experts are far too often the nay-sayers in meetings. As an expert, you need to find ways to say “yes.” Explore the options, consider the alternatives, look for yes. It is not always easy, but it will result in much better results with customers and colleagues.
#7 Avoid Surprises: It is never a good idea to surprise your customers or colleagues with bad news in a meeting. If you know bad news is eminent, then give people a warning in advance. Give them time to digest important information before a decision needs to be made. Meetings should be used to solve problems, not create them. Be the expert who offers options or brings solutions to the meeting, not the expert who wallows in the problems.
#8 Respect the Team: Team dynamics can be challenging. You may not always get along with the people you work with. In client meetings, however, your team should be unified. Leave resentments outside, forget hard feelings, and leave all skeletons in the closets. Client meetings are no place for grievances or aspersions. No matter what is said during the meeting that might trigger a conflict, always respect the team. Compliment the client, but just as importantly, compliment your colleagues. They are smart enough to work with you.
#9 Find Win-Win: In addition to helping customers accomplish their objectives, subject matter experts play the important role of helping their own companies reach their goals as well. One of those goals is avoiding unnecessary cost and risk. Doing what is right for the client does not mean you must do what is wrong for your employer. If two options are sufficient for the client, then you should recommend the option that is best for your employer. If one option is optimal for the client but catastrophic for your employer then don’t recommend it. You must find a solution which is a win for the client and a win for your company. You must find solutions which work for both parties.
#10 Feed the Beast: SMEs can often be overheard criticizing account managers or sales executives for being too focused on the top line. Don’t be one of those experts. Don’t look for faults in the sales department. The amount of revenue your company produces matters; it matters a lot. Great SMEs should know that nothing in your company can be sustained without sales. Sales pay the salaries and keep the lights on. Sales is the life blood of any company. Of anyone, the experts should know the value of sales.
Norman Collins was a prominent American tattoo artist of the mid-20th century. He died nearly 50 years ago but his work can still be found on the arms, legs, backs and chests of some of his customers today. Better known as “Sailor Jerry,” Collins started delivering tattoos from his parlor in Honolulu Hawaii in the 1930s. During WWII, millions of sailors stopped in Hawaii in route to the Pacific theater. Many of those young men visited Sailor Jerry’s shop and wear the proof of it today.
Sailor Jerry was recognized in the tattoo industry as a leader in design, composition, and color. He frequently created tattoos which other artists thought were impossible at the time. He had a fervent belief that his work spoke for itself. The signage and business cards in his shop said as much “Sailor Jerry: My work speaks for itself.”
Whenever Collins inked a young sailor, he knew his work would live on for decades. His art would be a point of attention and conversations for the rest of that person’s life. If anyone has a “my work speaks for itself” attitude, shouldn’t it be a tattoo artist?
Many experts today embrace the same philosophy. They believe that the most important measure of their expertise is their performance and that nothing else really matters. If an artist can create works that stun an audience then what difference is the artist’s personality? Similarly, if a basketball player can bury three pointers over any defender, who cares how well he speaks on camera? Michelangelo and Michael Jordan didn’t become famous because they were likable guys. They became famous because they performed unparalleled work. They were given a chance to perform on large stages and they delivered. One could easily conclude, therefore, that the work of an expert does indeed speak for itself.
We hear this idea in almost every industry and culture. It is just as common among surgeons as it is among NFL stars. It is common among architects as well as landscape professionals. “I was hired to do a job and a job I will do. That’s it.”
Of course, experts may opt to never say a word about their work and they may become tremendously successful in the process. That is, of course, their prerogative. But all experts should know that the “my work speaks for itself” mentality has two important flaws. First, no work can comprehensively speak for itself. A single piece of art or a peak performance cannot fully explain the creative process or the full circumstances of the work. The more an expert performs unparalleled work, the more questions onlookers will have about it. If experts won’t speak for their own work then someone else will fill the vacuum and speak for them. And in many cases, that person will not represent the expert’s work accurately, honestly, or with the passion it deserves.
Second, the attitude of “My work speaks for itself” is built on a foundation of arrogance. Experts who maintain this attitude are stroking their own egos and showing contempt for their audience. Arrogance does not serve the expert well. Conceit may provide temporary gains and attention, but it frequently comes before a fall. Experts should put their pride aside, answer questions, and humbly speak about their accomplishments.
Late in his career, Sailor Jerry had an epiphany. During one of his many trips to Japan, he consulted with leading Japanese tattoo artists. Their attitude about tattooing was different than his. Rather than inking whatever design the customer selected, the Japanese artists showed discretion. “Japan,” he said in his biography, “has the right answer—you don’t just walk in, lay your money down and get tattooed.” He then explained that Japanese artists study a customer’s character first, and if the artist doesn’t think the customer will be a credit to the work then they turn down the customer. “That’s the way I’m taking it from here on,” Collins concluded.
Sailor Jerry realized that his art didn’t just speak for itself. The person who carried his art also spoke and that person either enhanced the art or detracted from it. All tattoos come with a story. Once the art left the parlor, Sailor Jerry couldn’t speak for it. If the person wearing the art wasn’t going to bring credit to it then it was a mistake to bestow it in the first place.
Barrack Obama told Hillary Clinton that she was likable enough, and she never recovered.
In 2008, the U.S. Democratic Party brought the Presidential Primary race to New Hampshire. A debate was held between four candidates including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. During the event the moderator directed a question at Senator Clinton, “You are the most experienced and the most electable. … But what can you say to the voters of New Hampshire who see your resume and like it, but are hesitating on the likability issue? They seem to like Barrack Obama more?”
To this, Senator Clinton responded, “Well, that hurts my feelings.” She then paused, played to the pity of her audience by dropping her head and said, “But I’ll try to go on.”
In prophetic acquiescence, she said, “He’s very likable. I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.”
Senator Obama than paid her the unforgettable back-handed compliment of the entire campaign, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
During that debate in 2008 between Senator Clinton and Senator Obama, Clinton was the expert. And, eight years later when she ran again and debated Donald Trump, she was the expert again. But both times she lost the election. Just because experts have talent, education, and experience, it does not mean people will like them. In fact, the more remarkable an expert becomes, the higher the probability that likability is an issue.
Of course, there are many times when expertise is more important than temperament, but temperament matters, and it matters a lot more than some experts believe. Likable people more easily gain trust and influence. If your audience likes you they will overlook your flaws and the flaws of your product or service. They will forgive and forget old issues. They will award you with more business and will pay you more money. If something goes wrong, and it eventually will, people who like you will give you the benefit of the doubt and minimize the error. Being likable has many advantages.
Most experts understand intrinsically that they should try to be likable. Yet, many do very little to address deficiencies in this area. Let’s face it, for some experts being likable is difficult, so much so that some experts became experts intentionally so they can justify their unlikableness. For them it is easier to become an expert in their field of study than to develop a delightful personality. Some experts would never allow themselves to retain a knowledge gap in their field of expertise yet they will spend their entire careers with likability gaps in their personality.
Your competition is working hard to be likable even if you are not. Non-experts have known for a long time that the way to get ahead of an expert is by being more likable than they are. For some experts, likeability is their Achilles’ heel. Most non-exerts know that if you cannot out smart an expert, you still have a good chance of beating them by being more amiable, more pleasant, more appealing, and more good-natured.
As hard as it may seem for some experts, they can learn to be likable. And, we are not talking about just being tolerable. Many experts are tolerable, but few are truly charming. Likable experts acknowledge other people. They are kind, pleasant, and friendly. Showing genuine interest in an audience and listening to them when they speak will take experts a long way. But, being likable also means experts are sympathetic and patient. It means they demonstrate that they know people are more important than expertise. Being likable means you remain happy even when it is hard to be happy. It means you are not disagreeable even when you disagree. It means you don’t easily become irritable or angry. The likable are not disagreeable, even when they disagree. Great experts take the time to discover things about their audience that are sincerely interesting and laudable. Likable experts do thoughtful and kind things for their audience or, better yet, for their audiences’ colleagues. One of the most likable things any person can do is help another person’s child. Find ways to help people and lift them. If you are an expert and you are likable, truly likable, then you cannot be stopped. Likability and industry leading expertise are a rare combination.
Experts should never be satisfied by being “likeable enough!” If someone says you are likable enough, then be assured, you are not likable enough. If Senator Clinton did not prove that likability is essential in 2008, then she certainly did in 2016.
You worked hard to become an expert. Think hard before you throw it away.
Whether you are a doctor, a lawyer, a lawn care professional, or any other expert, you should glean some important lessons from the NFL Anthem protests and the fallout that surrounds them. Missing in national conflict and heated rhetoric are some critically important lessons about what can happen when experts in one field opine publicly about subjects outside their expertise. Experts of all stripes should pay attention. This is one way for things to go bad–very bad.
The NFL is filled with experts. The league has some of the most gifted, talented, and disciplined athletes in the world. They are well-paid and given global visibility. Many people are highly interested in what they do and say. Consequently, players are frequently asked about subjects beyond the sport. They are asked about entertainment, fashion, culture, politics, and so on. Many players use their unique platform to speak for causes they support or on subjects they strongly favor. And, of course, in America they are well within their rights to express themselves on any subject they wish.
The NFL Anthem protests are, in part, about police brutality, oppressed minorities, and freedom of speech. They are also about Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter. They are about respecting the flag, and disrespecting the flag; respecting the troops, and disrespecting the troops. The conflict began while Barrack Obama served as our first black president and then escalated sharply when President Trump called for the public termination of kneeling players.
As important as all these subjects may be, another urgent message is being missed. Few people are absorbing some of the truths concealed in the controversy. Here are my top three lessons for experts from the NFL Anthem protests.
Lesson One: Communications are fraught with misunderstanding and difficulty.
Following President Trump’s rebuke of players who kneel during the National Anthem, Eric Reid, a strong safety on the San Francisco 49ers, who frequently knelt beside Colin Kaepernick, wrote an op-ed for the NY Times. In the article, Reid said, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, the flag and military personnel.”
Undoubtedly many experts, inside the NFL and outside, feel the same way. How can kneeling, which is a symbol of reverence and respect in many settings, be interpreted as disrespectful during the National Anthem? Well, frankly, it can be. That fact should not baffle anyone. I will gladly take Reid at his word that he means no disrespect. I accept that. The point here is not about what Reid meant or what Kaepernick meant. The point is that people will draw their own conclusions and you, as the expert sending a message, cannot control these conclusions. You cannot control the deductions nor the interpretations. People will listen to your words, observe your behavior, and determine for themselves what you mean. It should not be lost on anyone in the United States of America, fan, player, or otherwise, that if you do not stand and quietly face the flag during the playing of the National Anthem there will be some, not all, but many, who will conclude that you do not value the flag nor the nation for which it stands.
So, I point all experts to the invaluable advice of the Finnish Professor, Osmo Wiio, who published his Laws of Communication in 1978. He said, “If a message can be interpreted in several ways, it will be interpreted in a manner that maximizes the damage.” Experts should know that everything they say and everything they do will be interpreted through the observer’s pessimistic, critical, and over-sensitive lens. In most cases, people who listen to you will draw the wrong conclusions and they will continue to draw the wrong conclusions until you make it impossible for them to draw any conclusion except the right one.
The entire NFL roster may kneel during the National Anthem. That is their prerogative. But they should not be surprised when people take offense. People will continue to interpret a message in the way that does the most harm. It is an undeniable law of communication.
Lesson two: Experts hurt themselves, and others, when they stray from their expertise.
As an expert, you have a sphere of excellence, a mastered subject or skill. Above all other domains, this is your turf, your home court. On that home court, you are recognized for your expertise. You have worked for years or decades to perfect your skills. This is where you are at your best. When you stray from your acquired position of strength, you become vulnerable—more so than many experts believe. Being strong in one field does not necessarily make you strong in another. To the contrary, having a strength in one area may actually make you weak in another. Experts who wander from their fortress of experience, skill, and knowledge are subject to doubt, disbelief, suspicion, insult, ridicule, and attack. Your opponent knows when you are weak and will waste no time exploiting your vulnerability.
It is easy for experts to think that their dominance in one field makes their opinions in another field more valuable. But the opposite is true. Experts should expect that their recognized excellence in one field will not automatically produce influence in another field. When a heart surgeon tries to give advice about home decorating, or when a plumber talks about tax law, the expert surgeon and the expert plumber is often dismissed. Waxing philosophical on a subject which is clearly outside your expertise makes you look like an arrogant know-it-all and it detracts from your true expertise.
Experts of all stripes should retain their stronghold. Why work for years developing a knowledge or skill only to set it aside? Experts who frame every question and every message into their domain will serve themselves, their colleagues, and their audience with maximum effectiveness. Stick with your own field of expertise.
Lesson three: Terminations happen behind closed doors.
President Trump obtained national attention in 2004 when he starred in the reality television show “The Apprentice.” Each episode included an abrupt, calloused, and public termination of the show’s contestants. With finger and thumb extended in the shape of a pistol, Donald Trump pointed at candidates and barked, “You’re fired!” This public termination may be exactly what the President had in mind when he asked NFL owners to terminate players who kneel during the Anthem.
Ironically, when the President called upon the owners to terminate players, he failed to acknowledge that the owners had already done what the president suggested. Their approach may not have been televised, but Colin Kaepernick, the instigator of the kneeling protest, was already out of his job. The message was already delivered to the league that players may protest if they wish, but if they did they shouldn’t expect to stay on the team roster. Eric Reid acknowledged as much in his NY Times op-ed when he said, “[Kaepernick’s] unemployment has nothing to do with his performance on the field. … I am aware that my involvement in this movement means that my career may face the same outcome.”
At least Reid recognizes that he is walking through a minefield when confronting subjects outside his home court of expertise. But not all experts are as aware of the dangers that surround them. As an expert, every time you step outside your field of expertise, you assume risk. There is a high likelihood that someone will be offended, confused, challenged, or alienated by your actions. Maybe the cause you endorse outside your expertise warrants the risk. Eric Reid believed his protest was worth the potential ramifications. It should be clear that risks do exist and that they are rarely as apparent as the risk of protesting the Anthem.
When you stray from your expertise and make even veiled or benign comments about public policy, social norms, or any controversial topics, you assume risk. When you criticize a leader, or take up a cause, no matter how noble it may be, you place yourself at the mercy of your audience. You no longer control your destiny as an expert. You are forfeiting your hard-earned expertise to the cause you now espouse. Is that what you want to do? Maybe it is, but don’t pretend that your causes and your expertise are separate. They are not.
People who sit in positions of power rarely act like President Trump. The President may find pleasure in saying, “You’re fired!” but very few other people do. Instead, if you alienate enough people, your influence as an expert will simply melt away. You will have less control and less influence. You will be left as an empty shell. Not because you lack expertise, but because enough people don’t want to hear about your social agendas.
The consequences of the NFL Anthem protests can teach every expert the importance of being cautious. You’ve worked for years to develop your skills. You’ve risen through the ranks and distinguished yourself. Now that you have reached the apex of your expertise, do you really want to throw it away over a social cause, or worse yet, a pet peeve? If so, great. Good for you! But don’t believe that you can have it both ways. You cannot stand on a soap box today and expect people to pretend it did not happen tomorrow. Treat your expertise carefully because it did not come easily.