Choosing between Reference and Deference – walking the plank of expertise

Experts are useful. They can quickly identify problems or potential value from a situation that might not be visible to others. If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book ‘Blink’, a lot of what is being discussed there is the highly tuned, often-subconscious capacity experts have to reach decisions that non-experts do not.

Sometimes expert behaviour can seem strange or irrational, or even a bit like magic. There is the famous example of the firefighter team leader who suddenly instructed his team to evacuate. He didn’t know why he did it, but he knew he had to. Seconds later, the building exploded in what is known as a backdraft fire. The team leader’s deep knowledge of fire had made him aware that there was something not quite right with what he was seeing, his instincts told him there was danger. After the event, it was discovered that he had unconsciously noticed the smoke was travelling INTO the building, rather than out of it, this is the warning sign of a backdraft. So, the expert team leader was absorbing the information that the smoke was travelling in the wrong direction, but didn’t consciously know why he had to evacuate his team.

Such stories can make expertise look like an unambiguously fantastic thing. In the case of a crisis scenario like a fire expertise clearly makes the difference. But we need to be aware of how expertise is treated and handled within a more day-to-day team setting. In a research project I conducted with two colleagues (MacLaren, Farrington & Casulli, 2022), we observed the decision-making processes of a team of business leaders who were deciding on how to make investments for a fund, all highly skilled and experienced in their fields. As they were presented with different cases for potential investment, they would point out how a group member had experience in that field or industry and therefore should be referred to for opinion…so far, so good. But, over the course of hundreds of hours of observation, we started to witness strange things happening. The group really liked to identify its experts. While they identified these experts, they tended to do so by self-deprecating and downplaying their own expertise, saying things like: “you’re far more experienced than me in that area.” What we saw was an informal hierarchy emerging. Investors were playing-down their own knowledge and experience to promote the expertise of someone else, but this also enforced a structure that effectively withdrew the ‘non-experts’ from the discussion. This created a spiral that resulted in the expert being singled-out. So, what happened when the expert was singled-out? They no longer needed to use their expertise to inform an opinion because all the other people in the room had withdrawn from contributing. By withdrawing, the other investors had removed the need for the ‘elected expert’ to make judgements using expertise, because the informal hierarchy had placed absolute authority on them. Basically, the chief expert could now say whatever they wanted and everyone would listen.

The upshot of this pattern was that the ‘experts’ were being ‘deferred’ to for their authority, rather than being ‘referred’ to for their expertise. In philosophy, an appeal to authority should be handled with care as it is generally accepted that evidence is more reliable than authority. In our research, the irony was that the group thought it was referring to an expert, but it was actually deferring to an authority identified through a potentially unreliable spiral of relative lack of expertise: “I’m not as qualified as you to judge this.”

You might be thinking, but hang on – the experts might still have been making sensible decisions even though they were singled-out. Well, there was a pattern there, too. When experts were singled-out, they almost never suggested that the group invested. Research in social psychology tells us that this is a natural response in such a situation, where the individual will veer towards conservatism in their decision. You can imagine the feeling of responsibility if a friend approached you and told you of a dilemma they had: ‘I can’t decide if I should quit my job and start my own business, please help!’ It would feel far less risky if you advised them to hold out a bit longer – stick with the status quo – then you’d only be perpetuating a state they were already in rather than being responsible for sending them into the unknown. If you were singled-out to make a decision that involved investing millions of pounds, like our research subjects, if you advised not to invest then the only downside was lost potential, whereas advising to invest had a more tangible potential downside of losing actual money – classic loss aversion bias.

We helped that organisation implement strategies for ensuring that the ‘expert paradox’ could be avoided, empowering other members of the group to ask questions that referred to the expert’s knowledge, rather than deferred to their authority. This meant that the group did not slip unknowingly into a situation where they simultaneously identify the expert but don’t actually make use of their expertise – we created shorthand prompts for others to ask the experts, like: “name the biggest strength and the biggest risk”. This helped rescue the experts from isolation, apply their knowledge and substantiate their opinions in the decision-making process.

There are lessons for the team around an expert here. It is a fallacy to think that expertise and authority are the same thing, they’re related but not the same. It’s also a fallacy to think that because you might be the non-expert or a junior person in the room you don’t have a role to play. When you find yourself in the company of an expert, you still have a role to play, you need to encourage the expert to apply their expertise and use it in the judgements they offer, rather than just accept their decision. This means that they need to try to substantiate their views on the basis of what they know, not who they are. What we learned from observing these patterns many times is that when the experts are singled-out, they don’t feel able to use their expertise effectively since they are pushed towards conservatism in their judgements and therefore we don’t get the benefit of their knowledge in reaching an optimal decision.

So, if you’re the expert, try not to feel as though you’re being made to walk the plank. Call upon your expertise, not your authority. If you’re in the company of an elected expert, challenge and encourage them to use their expertise: seek reference, not deference.


Gladwell, M. (2006). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. London: Penguin.

MacLaren, A. C., Farrington, T., & Casulli, L. (2022). Subversive linguistic conventions in panel-based decision making: a group level study. British Academy of Management Proceedings, August 2022.

Thorngate, W., Dawes, R. M. & Foody, M. (2009). Judging Merit. New York, NY: Psychology Press.