’Keep Experts on Tap — Not on Top’: The Perils of Always Deferring to the Experts
Artificial intelligence makes everything easier. Google Maps tells us the optimal route to the grocery store so we don’t have to worry about traffic. Spotify algorithmically recommends new music based on our past listening habits, and we never have to worry about getting bored with our workplace soundtracks. Cutting-edge job-matching tools tell us which candidates would make the best fits for our open roles, doing away with the time-consuming sourcing and screening process almost entirely.
And when the problem’s too big for AI to handle, we just call in the experts. In an era of increasing specialization, you can always find someone whose whole job is focusing on problems just like the one you’re having, whether it’s refining your employer brand or choosing a new applicant tracking system or even just deciding how to manage your time every day.
By relying on AI and experts, we can be sure we’re always making the best decisions for ourselves and our companies, right?
Not exactly, says Vikram Mansharamani, a lecturer at Harvard University and the author of Think for Yourself: Restoring Common Sense in an Age of Experts and Artificial Intelligence (HBR Press, 2020).
According to Mansharamani, we’ve come to rely too much on experts and AI to tell us what to do. In search of optimal decisions, we’ve learned to outsource our thinking. Ironically enough, that can actually drive us to make worse decisions.
“My message is really a democratic one: We all can and should stand up to experts. We don’t need to be bullied by them. But at the same time, we don’t want to dismiss their inputs,” Mansharamani says. “Experts are valuable and can be helpful is so many ways, but we do need to zoom out and contextualize our decision space before we tap into experts.”
To talk more about why we all need to “relearn how to think for ourselves,” Mansharamani was kind enough to conduct a Q&A session with us via email. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, minimally edited for style and clarity:
Recruiter.com: Your book argues that we often suffer from a kind of decision-making fear of missing out, or “FOMO.” We’re so worried we’ll miss out on the optimal decision that we tend to outsource our thinking to the experts, losing our own autonomy along the way. Can you say a little bit about how we arrived at this point?
Vikram Mansharamani: Information and data have been growing at such a rapid rate that we often find ourselves overwhelmed and overloaded. The number of choices we face has also exploded, leaving us with a fear of missing out on the optimal decision. How can there not be the absolutely perfect movie for my mood right now given that there are millions of on-demand titles available? But this mere fact means we will likely be disappointed by almost any choice.
How could we not be, given the promise of perfection? So what do we do? We run headlong into the arms of experts and technologies that promise to optimize our choices. But in the process, we’re giving up control and losing our autonomy. Perhaps it’s easier (or maybe we’re just lazy), but we find it more comfortable to let others think for us. It’s the same thing in most domains of life in which experts rule.
RC: On the surface, one might think that simply deferring to the experts would be a solution to our problems, but your book frames it very differently: “managing the influence of experts and technologies on our thinking is one of the most important and vexing challenges of our time.” Can you say more about that?
VM: For far too long, our relationship with experts has bounced like a ping-pong ball between mindless deference to their guidance and complete dismissal of them. Neither is correct. We need to figure out how to keep experts on tap and not on top. We need to extract the best insights from experts but retain control. The fundamental reality is that experts know more than we do in their domain, but we know more about the context of our decision. In fact, the big picture is structurally outside of the view, so it becomes critical that we stay in control.
RC: I want to quickly call attention to that distinction between keeping experts “on tap” and keeping them “on top.” What’s the difference here?
VM: Having an expert “on top” is allowing them to be in control. It likely means you blindly defer to their decisions. “They are the expert, of course I’ll do what they say!”
Experts “on tap” is what I think we all want. Keeping experts on tap is utilizing experts as and when needed, but only as an input into a process we control. We need to think of ourselves as artists, forming a mosaic. Experts provide the tiles, but we are responsible for putting them together to serve our purposes.
RC: Recruiters and hiring managers aren’t immune to this over-reliance on expertise. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about the particular challenges this over-reliance can pose when organizations are trying to hire top talent.
VM: The Peter principle describes how bureaucracies can go wrong. It’s actually tragically funny. The essence of the problem is that we tend to evaluate someone’s accomplishments and abilities in their current job as the criteria to promote them. They’ve done great at this job, so let’s promote them to that job.
The result, according to the Peter principle, is that people stop getting promoted when they’ve reached their “level of incompetence” and remain there, leaving an organization filled with people that are not good at what they do. Anytime someone does a good job in their position, they get promoted, so any good performance is transitory at best.
I think the Peter principle is really about how hiring managers and recruiters tend to focus on the wrong situation. We need to think how a person will do in the job for which they are headed, not the one they’re in. There might be junior employees who are brilliant but simply don’t like following others’ orders. They might make great leaders, but most systems won’t allow them to rise.
RC: In your book, you also describe your three-step process of “fire, aim, and (maybe) rehire” to reclaim your autonomy when dealing with a problem. Can you say a bit more about that?
VM: That’s a phrase I used to describe my own experiences and what I’ve found useful to reclaim control of experts. It’s sometimes very difficult to push back against your expert advisors, but if you terminate the relationship and then reevaluate what you’d like from it, you’ve suddenly become more mindful of what you seek and why. It’s quite powerful.
I once “fired” my doctor before finding another one, and when I did, I felt empowered to enter the new relationship in control. I had turned off the autopilot and began thinking for myself. In other cases, I parted ways with representatives that I found I didn’t need to replace. But in all cases, I found the process allowed me to “insource” my thinking, even if only for a bit, before I proactively and mindfully allowed others to help.
RC: Finally, I want to focus on an interesting quote from the preface: “As a generalist, I feel empowered to ask what may be naïve questions.” Naïveté is often framed as a negative. What makes a naïve question empowering in some contexts?
VM: A beginner’s mind is unadulterated by conventional wisdom, and a generalist is one who knows a little about a lot and so is not expert in most things. As a result, a generalist brings an open mind to asking questions, some of which may reveal important assumptions that more knowledgeable folks may simply take for granted. Another way to think about it is naïveté as a fresh perspective, at least from a question-asking perspective.