Covid threw up some very awkward questions about the role of experts and the status of their advice. The Government was accused of saying they were acting on scientific or expert advice when introducing controversial or unpopular measures and ignoring the advice when it suited their other agendas. But is this so unusual? Don’t leaders and senior managers in all organisations do exactly this? Likewise if a senior manager commissions an investigation are they bound by the recommendations or can they pick and chose based on their knowledge of the bigger picture?
HR are frequently asked to conduct or lead an investigation into allegations of bullying, racism or misogyny. Most large organisations have experienced specialist staff to undertake investigations of this often sensitive nature. I was present when a senior manager received such a report. He immediately flicked to the end of the report to the recommendations. Quickly read them and seeing my quizzical look said,”Having commissioned the report I’m hardly going to ignore its recommendations “. In this case the conclusion was that there was evidence to support the allegation and a formal disciplinary hear was recommended. I suspect if the conclusion was different and the recommendation was more controversial he would have taken more interest in the detail of the report.
This same senior manager had a very different response to the recommendations of their finance officers when their expert advice did not coincide with his understanding of the boards wishes. The report was considered an early draft and there were considerable negations before the final version was presented to the board. It’s fair to say the final version down played the risks and concerns of the finance experts to the extent that the recommendation gave the go ahead for the proposal all be it with some cautionary notes. The complete opposite of the original expert advice.
Leaders have to weigh up the advice of experts against other considerations. If everything goes to plan then no one will know the advice was ignored/down played. However if things go badly wrong then the reasons for ignoring that advice will be scrutinised in detail.