Trusting Your Instincts in the Face of Expert Knowledge

Have you ever trusted your judgement over that of an expert only to find that you were right? 

Last week, we made a short trip to Bangkok and my sister and her troops joined us. On the bus trip back from the River Kwai, we had a little disruption to our plans. My sister had her toenail lopped off her big toe when she missed the footrest while placing her foot down. Sparing the squirmish details, just think oozing blood and perpendicular toenail. Thankfully, I had a spare roll of toilet paper in my knapsack which came in useful as a makeshift bandage for temporary measure. After an hour and half of traveling back to Bangkok from Kanchanaburi, we were dropped off at our hotel and immediately grabbed a cab and headed for the hospital recommended by the tour guide.

The service at the hospital was unbelievably swift and each staff we interacted with was gracious and courteous. First the assistant who gently helped her out of the cab and into a wheelchair and then rushed her through the A&E doors. Then in less than 2 minutes, in walked the cool (as in calm) Indian doctor who assessed the damage and then effortlessly went about what seemed like routine work for him. At one point while removing bits from her toe, he asked my sister if she had any drug allergies and she faintly replied penicillin. She had her head turned the other way all through the surgery not wanting to see what was going on. Then a male nurse did the final dressing and we were promptly out of the A&E and at the dispensary. They all seemed very experienced and confident and that was reassuring, especially when you are in a foreign land. Four anesthesia jabs, one anti-tetanus one, toenail removal surgery and medicine in hand, we were out of there in half an hour.

At the dispensary, after we had paid for the medicine and were about to collect them at the next counter, the young pharmacist asked my sister if she had any drug allergies, to which my sister replied penicillin and then said she had informed the doctor so he already knew. The pharmacist was not so sure. She stared at us for a moment as she made that judgement call in her mind. She decided to pick up the phone and call the doctor. It turned out she had to change one of the drugs originally prescribed. Wow!...and wo!

What struck me was how she took no chances, how she trusted her instincts in spite of the doctor’s prescription, how she trusted her judgement over what we had told her. Then there was the empowerment she must have had, manifested in her call to the doctor to confirm his prescription. She saw herself as being just as responsible and accountable as he was. For us, the oversight of the doctor was overshadowed by the initiative of the young pharmacist.

Could the doctor have not heard my sister’s response or did he not know that the original drug prescribed would be a mistake. Did the pharmacist know for sure that the drug would be wrong or did she just call to confirm her instincts? She spoke Thai so we could not understand what she said.

It’s human nature to trust our own knowledge over that of someone else’s unless that someone else happens to be an expert on the subject. So how do we know when to question expert knowledge? In organizations, do we have the opportunity and more importantly, the courage to question expert knowledge? People need to speak up and question assumptions, long held beliefs that with time no longer hold true, sacred cows that are now carcasses. We do not question authority, we question knowledge. We learn, we all learn why one view is good and the other is better, irrespective of whether they come from an expert or not.

Well, the icing to the experience, the delightful end was having the nursing assistant escort us out, ask us where we were going, hail the next cab in the queue for us, help my sister into it and then inform the driver of our destination. We were treated like VIPs, well worth the little over a hundred Singapore dollars for the “premium” service.

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