Thursday, 17 January 2013

The fine line between professional skepticism and suspicion

I've been in auditing, finance and procurement, and like practically any job/career they place an emphasis on abilities like communication and an insatiable hunger to meet deadlines.

Something else that I was repeatedly taught was to "maintain an attitude of professional skepticism."  This essentially means you need to take what clients and third parties tell you with a pinch of salt: don't accept things at face value.  Professional skepticism requires that you corroborate (to a reasonable degree) what you're told to satisfy yourself that the story ties up.  In professions like auditing it's an essential attitude to have in the interests of independence and uncovering the facts.

What I've seen happening to many people in the abovementioned jobs though is that their professional skepticism crosses the chasm and becomes suspicion.  They begin to assume that every word coming out of a supplier or client's mouth is intentionally misleading, and worse yet form a generalized opinion of the people they deal with.  When I was a buyer, often the account managers we dealt with were categorized as "salesmen" or "bullshitters" among the procurement team.  Worrying was that a large amount of trust towards the account managers was created or destroyed based on these generalized perceptions.

Years in an environment where you have to repeatedly verify what others tell you can make you a suspicious, mistrusting person.  You stand to become critical, cynical and suspicious.

This is why it's important to know when to drop the professional skepticism and simply trust.  Some encounters require the highest level of professional skepticism and sometimes even pessimism (like a price negotiation).  In meetings, emails and phone conversations that aren't critical however, consciously switch the professional skepticism off and find some other meaning in the conversation, other than trying to determine whether you're being told the truth or not.  Not every word a person says belies an ulterior motive, and not every undetected lie has dire consequences.

Remember these are people you're talking to, even if they're "outsiders" who don't work in the same company as you do.  As a buyer I would often sit in engineer meetings with suppliers that I bought from, and in such meetings I would remind myself that it's not my job to suss anybody out.  As long as my team of engineers were happy, then so was I.  My skepticism and suspicion would come in during price negotiations, which was a core job function of mine.  The maxim "Pick your battles" applies here.

If you allow professional skepticism to grow unchecked, those in your personal circles end up being the ones who suffer most.  At work you will probably be highly regarded as the one that nobody can lie to, but that's small consolation for the compromise that will no doubt creep into your personal relationships.

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