Why we pay experts to tell us what our employees already know

I’m sure we’ve all been there: banging our head against a brick wall as we repeat a message that just isn’t being received by our colleagues or leaders, only to have some guru hired in at exorbitant rates for your annual leadership conference, or to run some workshop, or to transform some process, who says exactly the same thing that you’ve been harping on about for ages but without all the business-specific knowledge you yourself could have also brought to the table.

Why does this happen? Why does this happen with such alarming frequency?

Jesus encapsulated this uniquely human phenomenon rather perfectly: having performed a bucket load of miracles he then returned to his hometown, only to find that they didn’t think he was All That, and he remarked to his disciples, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home."

So, what makes it difficult for us to see, hear and receive the genius that is within our own people? Why are our organisational prophets so often without honour? And why is paying someone outside of the organisation to tell us what we could actually find within it, such a palatable alternative?

  1. We want our prophets to be gods, not people: We live in a culture that is prone to making idols out of people, and then, when they turn out to be human (like the rest of us) by committing some uniquely human but socially unacceptable act, we tear them to shreds. We throw them off the pedestal, and we burn their entire lives to the ground with what we say about them. I suspect that the truth of the matter is that we aren’t comfortable with the ways that we are flawed, so we don't feel comfortable when we realise the ways that our heroes are flawed, too. We tend to only let exceptional, admirable people (as we might individually define 'exceptional' and ‘admirable’) teach us things. With an outside expert, we haven't spent enough time with them to get to know how they, like us, are limited, and so we can subconsciously believe that they aren't. And for a lot of people, it is this belief that makes it possible for them to remain open to learning something.
  2. We want to keep employees in the box of their role description: There are several reasons why we might want to keep employees in the box of their role description - either because we're used to seeing them in a particular way, and that's comfortable for us, or because the patch that the person might like to move into is one that we think is ours or that we want to be ours alone. I remember being told by someone in human resources that she was the expert in that field and so I should take what she said without question... and yet I knew myself to be someone with an enormous amount of value to add in that space. We need to see past someone’s role description to what they’re capable of and or passionate about, and this will only happen if we create the space in our minds - and the opportunities in real life - for our employees to continually evolve.
  3. We don’t have the humility necessary to let our peers take a teaching role: When we know that our peers are just like us - a combination of strengths and weaknesses - it takes a lot of humility to see beyond that ordinary person to whatever message of value that they might be delivering. We also get jealous of other people being honoured in ways that we would like to be. But this isn't a zero sum game: that is, more honour for one person doesn't have to mean less honour for someone else. What if we were able to institute humble learning cultures, where we genuinely considered the merits of the message, rather than the merits of the messenger? What if teaching was a part of everyone’s role?
  4. When we spend a large amount of money on something, we’re biased to see it as good: "Surely, it must be good! I've just spent $100,000 on this speaker! He’s the best! Everyone loved what he had to say! HE CLIMBED EVEREST!" The reality is that it is hard for us to consider that we might have just wasted a decent amount of money being told something we already knew or could have easily found out for ourselves, and so we convince ourselves that we haven't. This is where deep thinking up front, and candid reflecting post event, would help us. Unfortunately, both require time, and one requires a lot of emotional maturity, to do really well... and neither are things that the average organisation is known for having a lot of. It’s a little different with employees, even though we’re also paying for them. What we end up doing is subconsciously assuming that the value an employee can provide is somehow linked to the salary that we pay them or their position on the org chart. This is wrong: people at all levels of the organisation can provide value that far exceeds their salary or position, if we create the space for them to do that.
  5. We want to be able to blame something 'out there' (the expert) if things go wrong, rather than looking 'in here' (ourselves, our business, our employees, our culture): External experts give us a scapegoat, someone to project onto if the outcomes aren't great. Again, it requires a lot of integrity and humility to take responsibility for the state of things in your organisation, to let learning spring from within, and to realise that there is no magic bullet that is going to transform whatever organisational issue you are beset with.
  6. We’re lazy (often disguised as 'too busy'): It requires far less from us as leaders to pay one person to give us the answer, than it does for us to facilitate those learnings from a diverse group of people. But, by taking that route, we miss out on a diversity of perspectives, specific business knowledge applied to the problem, and the benefits of the employee engagement that that kind of collaborative problem solving work often creates.

Familiarity might often breed contempt, but it doesn’t have to. Familiarity could, instead, breed a profound respect for the reality of human beings: for the ways that someone is both whole and limited, for their latent genius and their latent madness. But in order to receive that genius we must bear with each other, and being in relationship is naturally uncomfortable. This is because being deeply present to another human forces us to grow and change. External guru’s don’t have to do this - they don’t have to get in the trenches with people over the long haul and endure through the illogical, emotional and messy reactions that human beings have to things. They don't have to invest, particularly not in the ways and to the depths that your employees do.

The next time you’re considering bringing in an external expert to assist with something in your organisation, cast the net about instead to see if there is someone (or several people) for whom this could be a passion project. If you give them the same level of support and consideration that you would give to an external expert doing the same thing, then you will likely be positively surprised by what comes out of it.

Anna Stanford