“Well, here’s what I think …”

Technology has been a great workplace equalizer, allowing everyone to perform tasks that once required specialized skills, and flattening organizational charts as companies reduce headcount.  But added responsibility doesn’t automatically equate knowledge or expertise.

I mention that because a side effect of that change is a growing misconception that anyone capable of forming an opinion is automatically entitled to the knowledge and expertise needed to make that opinion valid or meaningful. As a result, we’re shifting to a business world in which all opinions are granted the same weight, whether they come from someone with twenty years of experience or a newly minted title.

A wise boss of mine said it was the biggest and most dangerous change he’d seen over his career. He called it “the death of apprenticeship,” explaining that not all that long ago, no matter what field someone worked in, there was a process through which the companies would impart knowledge and expertise — typically, by having them work with others who had developed that expertise. Only after a suitable amount of time in that “apprenticeship” would they be placed in positions in which they’d have decision-making duties. The underlying premise was that opinions of people with less experience and exposure to the business world were intrinsically less valuable.

As companies rush to shrink headcount and flatten the organizational chart, those systemic opportunities to develop knowledge have disappeared. The result is that key decisions are being made by people who haven’t had the chance to develop the wisdom that grows alongside experience. It isn’t that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know enough to recognize what they don’t know. That’s dangerous.

I’m not saying that there aren’t highly talented people who have acquired knowledge and standing in a significantly shorter time. I’ve worked with many people who had sharper skills and better judgment in their 20s than their colleagues who were a lot closer to retirement age. But those people have been the exceptions, not the rule.

As soon as someone making decisions about a project starts using statements like “Well, I think …” or “my friends think …” or “the people I’ve been talking to think …”, I know the project is doomed to fail — unless the people being cited are perfect representatives of the customers, prospects, or other audiences being targeted. A common example I’ve seen over the years is making advertising decisions based upon the decision-maker’s personal consumption of media instead of what research shows the company’s actual prospects prefer.

I don’t place the blame on those individuals. They’ve been put in positions of authority, and they have every right to exercise that authority as they see fit. It’s a matter of management. When company leaders and managers don’t have enough knowledge about the functional areas to recognize the amount of skill decisions in those areas require, they’re setting their own companies up for waste and missteps at best, and eventual failure at worst.

I believe the key for company leaders is to look beyond headcount to individual skills. If you’re flattening the organizational chart in an effort to cut costs, take part of what you would have paid to supervisory staff and invest it in education for the people who have been given new roles. If you’re going to place someone in a role in which they’ll be responsible for significant decisions, help them acquire the knowledge they need to make those decisions with confidence. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that you’ll just confirm the Peter Principle.

If you’re the person who has been promoted into a role that may be stretching your competency, don’t be afraid to admit it. Look for resources that can reinforce areas in which you may not be as strong as you’d like. That may involve classes at a local college, attending professional conferences or workshops, or even finding a mentor within your company or at a company that doesn’t compete with yours. If you haven’t been placed in an apprentice role, create one for yourself.

A promotion can be an intoxicating ego boost, but don’t let it cloud your judgment or give you inflated self-confidence. The smartest, most successful business leaders I’ve known are acutely aware of what they don’t know, and that was central to their success.