In this short article I’m going to share my view of why we still do things the same old way. This is about the power of confirmation bias, the ability of the brain to only select information and experience that supports existing beliefs and reject things which don’t.
What are your biases and how do they impact the way you behave?
By Kevin Vaughan-Smith, Joint MD, Mutual Value
In business there is a revolution going on. We have started to focus on building trust and understanding its critical importance to our commercial success… except in the way many of us try to build our most important client relationships.
What is the most common belief that we cleave to? That expertise is the defining factor in client selection. I want to challenge that.
Look at how the trust landscape in business has changed according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer:
“Businesses have become the most trusted institution. And leaders are expected to build trust with their stakeholders, deliver better, sustained outcomes, and lead on both business and societal issues. And this leadership extends beyond industry expertise, financial results and corporate social responsibility—leaders are now relied upon to speak out in support of democracy, act on sustainability issues, and advocate for societal social justice.”
So, if the context has changed, and with it the expectations placed on their clients’ businesses, why do so many of the people we work with, especially in professional services, still try to build relationships by largely focussing on selling their narrow expertise? Our experience is that it’s the strength of confirmation bias holding us to traditional beliefs and methods, and until we challenge and change those beliefs we will fall short of our potential.
Here’s what we are seeing – I’d be interested if this resonates with you.
The switch to a trust-based focus in business has really been accelerating over recent years. David Maister et al’s book, ‘The Trusted Advisor’, ‘The Speed of Trust’ by Stephen MR Covey, PwC’s announcement of a $300m investment into a Trust Institute are all signposts of the overwhelming and growing importance of the topic, but the growth has really only taken off in the last few years. The powerful bias towards expertise as a lead issue is much older and deeper rooted, hence difficult to shift.
Why do we focus on expertise?
Expertise in western economies can easily be traced back to the industrial revolution, specialisation and the drive for efficiency. The professions were all born or massively expanded in this period and we honoured those who demonstrated the deepest competency.
Large professional firms – like PwC and the other members of the Big 4, Magic Circle law firms, many large infrastructure firms, etc. – were all founded by experts who recruited like-minded people and built their success on selling that expertise into the market. It’s been a story of success that has reached back over 150 years and has built enormous bias into the system to lead with expertise.
So what’s wrong with expertise?
Nothing in itself of course, but the bias towards leading with expertise may fail to meet the needs of organisations trying to operate in the world described by Edelman.
Let’s consider this for a moment. If I have a bias towards expertise, I want to demonstrate that expertise to my clients and colleagues. I may actively or accidently avoid talking about subjects outside of my area of expertise, because it exposes me to the potential of not knowing ‘the answer’ and therefore lacking expertise.
My natural confirmation bias will select those clients, even those questions, which fit my beliefs, and will help me ignore topics that don’t. I become limited by my bias, rather than open to conversations which may support the client’s agenda to deal with wide ranging topics and concerns.
This can be hugely frustrating both for the Firm and for the client. Firms try to represent themselves as capable of a variety of different services which may be hugely additive to their Clients. The problem is, it’s simply not the way their people talk when they get in front of the Client.
Clients can get frustrated because they don’t want point solutions – they want the broad spread capability of the Firm they are dealing with, but their agenda is either ignored or downplayed. They are often left searching for specific solutions which fail to leverage knowledge of their organisation or cross- service economies.
So how does this affect trust?
Recent research showed that cultural fit and trust are now more important than technical expertise when Clients chose to select providers. In fact, those who led with technical expertise were at risk since they were often labelled as self-interested or even arrogant when they led with preconceived, narrow, expertise and solutions rather than being open, confident and competent to discuss the broader range of commercial and business issues.
Changing the focus towards trust
Breaking down the bias is not about abandoning expertise; it’s about changing our focus. We must continue to invest in knowledge but also in broader relationship-building skills. That recognises that our clients need to trust us to work with them to deeply explore their business environment, to create potential opportunities where the application of our knowledge and expertise creates measurable value for them.
Our bias needs to move from leading with what we know to exploring the value that our expertise can create for those with whom we work. When we create value for them and us, mutual value, we create trust and the basis of long-term relationships.
Oh and by the way, here’s the good news: once we adopt and act on our belief that it’s about building relationships based on cultural and team fit – an enabling belief supportive of the new context – you can rely on confirmation bias in your team to reinforce the paradigm!
Does this resonate? If so, let’s have an open discussion about what this might mean for your business and what difference it would make for everyone to act as a trusted partner to your clients.
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Let's have an open conversation about the value this can bring to your organisation. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a free video call with Stuart Maister or Kevin Vaughan-Smith.