A New Professionalism

We live in complex and confusing times. Everyone is required to make many judgments, weigh many issues, and take a great deal of information into account on a daily basis. So many of the important decisions we must make call for specialized skills or experience that we may not possess. They also demand free time for thoughtful reflection; something which may be in short supply. What we badly need, to manage our complicated lives, is excellent advice. The need for good counsel, though, leads directly to a bigger problem: who should we trust? In some ways, this is the biggest quandary of all. Figuring out in whom we can safely place our faith and reliance seems almost impossible. Yet solving this dilemma is critical. In light of the growing complexity and specialization of our world, obtaining the best advice is more vital than ever. Finding skilled advisors who are deeply trustworthy may be the most important, and most difficult, task we face.

Why is it so hard to find someone worthy of our trust? The answer can be found in a couple of truths known to economists. First, people have a strong tendency to respond to their own interests. Even those at the very highest levels of governmental, social or commercial life usually take actions they believe will further their own goals and objectives. Indeed, one way of looking at human interactions is to start with the assumption that a person’s sole motivation is to advance his own interests. Such a rational actor will only further the well-being of others if he believes that to do so also somehow maximizes his own benefit. To put it simply, most “advisors” have a serious conflict-of-interest: what is best for them may not be the greatest thing for their client.

The second truth economists have identified is that people who are highly trained in a special area know a lot more about it than we do. Most advisors have command of a great many practices, norms and tricks-of-the-trade that are far beyond the knowledge of even very smart “regular people.” This is particularly true in fields where special jargon, routines, and techniques make “common sense” an almost irrelevant attribute. In the language of economics, there is an asymmetry of information between the advisor and the client. As a result, the person receiving the advice is badly disadvantaged and very vulnerable to being manipulated.

The combination of conflicting interests and asymmetric information creates a situation in which it is unwise to trust most advisors. They may be decent people with good intentions and a warm heart but, in reality, they are not likely to put their client’s interests ahead of their own. A prudent client would not even expect that level of unselfishness – and experience shows us that extreme caution is called for in light of typical practices. Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. The incentives are stacked against an advisor being highly trustworthy and, since advisors are human, most of them act on their own interests. This creates a huge difficulty for the client in need of the best possible advice.

For historical and legal reasons, this dilemma is particularly difficult when dealing with our economic lives. The problems of conflicting interests and asymmetric information, however, are not unique to financial advice. Indeed, they arise whenever we pay someone to give us highly skilled guidance about subjects on which they have much greater knowledge. What is to be done about this predicament? How can we get the guidance, care, and help we need in an area outside our own expertise without being preyed upon by someone who has the requisite skills?

It turns out that society, having long struggled with this problem, has come up with a pretty good answer. People have always needed help, guidance and care in dealing with their greatest treasures. In particular, our health, wealth, rights, and relationship with the Almighty are areas of great vulnerability. We need assistance with these things but are terribly vulnerable to being abused by those who would help us. The societal answer is that in these areas our care is entrusted to professionals.

The traditional professions of medicine, law, and the clergy have unique histories and cultures that developed over very long periods of time. What they have in common, however, is an understanding that service, care and safeguarding are an intrinsic part of professional work. With this shared knowledge, each of the traditional professions trains and socializes its members (novices and elders alike) in these core attributes that are simultaneously skills and values. To be a member of one of these professions requires mastery of a body of knowledge, some sort of certification or passing of a test or assessment, and an apprenticeship of one kind or another. It is here proposed, however, that they ask for much more than that. The traditional professions seek from their practitioners, as well as skill, adherence to a code that has at its core an understanding that the professional must not violate the complex trusts placed in them by those they serve. It is this focus on faithfulness that is the essence of what separates professionals from others possessing skill and knowledge.

To be a professional, historically, was to be a member of one of these traditional professions. To gain such a place was not easy; it required long hard work, intense study, the passing of various tests. It also required undergoing a powerful socialization: the professions went to great lengths to get their members to think and act as prescribed. Included in this socialization was some variation of this idea of keeping trust. Furthermore, once a person had attained this status, the profession itself was always looking over her shoulder and seeking to encourage, maintain, and enforce the agreed upon codes and expectations.

My purpose here is not to idealize the historical professions. It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that they have always been effective in training and socializing their members to serve and safeguard with the highest levels of faithfulness. The professional bodies, as well, often have been as interested in self-protection and promotion as in loftier goals. Sometimes they function more like guilds than as protectors of the highest societal needs. The point, though, is that when they have failed to uphold their self articulated highest ideals, they have badly fallen short of their avowed professionalism. The professions, and their members, are far from perfect. In their unattained perfect form, however, they are the answer to the great societal problem of who will fairly and faithfully help people protect that which is most precious and important.

It is neither practical nor reasonable, though, to suggest that an answer lies in always getting a highly ethical doctor, lawyer, or member of the clergy to help us with all our problems. We are a society served by a great many groups, vocations, and practitioners. How can we pull together the highest levels of knowledge, skill, training, certification and apprenticeship and effectively blend them with the concepts of keeper of trusts and safeguarding agent who will never violate or betray the precious things placed in their care?

The answer proposed here is to reclaim the notion of “professional” and restore to it a precise meaning and high purpose. Our modern society has allowed it to evolve into a word for anyone who has a strong set of skills. This has led to confusion and a loss of usefulness. We have left out the most important part.

After many years of thought and study, I have concluded that the most useful definition of what makes someone a professional is this:

“A true professional uses his or her ability and power solely to advance the best and truest interests of the client. When the professional’s interests diverge from those of the client, the professional always follows only the client’s interests.”

By decoupling “professionalism” from particular groups and, instead, defining it by its special attributes, we can broaden our understanding of who may legitimately be viewed as a true professional. Such a definition, however, stays faithful to the teaching of the traditional professions found in their codes, training, and socialization. The professional uses her skills, knowledge, experience, and training solely in the service of the client. Indeed, whatever power of any kind she possesses is to be brought to the exclusive task of advancing the client’s interests. Although the professional makes a very good and fair living, she is never permitted, under any circumstances, to enrich herself at the expense of that client.

This notion of what makes for a true professional, with its attendant strengthening of expectations and duties, can guide practitioners and providers to a higher level of service and responsibility. By restoring to the concept of professionalism the level of responsibility and trustworthiness prescribed by the “traditional professions,” a new set of obligations will be assumed by those who would hold themselves out as professionals. This will lead to greater openness, conscientiousness, and reliability on the part of those who wish to be viewed in a professional light. Along with this will grow up a commercial imperative; few people will seek guidance from less than a true professional. Thus, the choice to embrace this new understanding of professionalism simultaneously helps the practitioner and the client she serves.

There is a further benefit to such a societal reclaiming of professionalism. This notion of the true professional will greatly assist in the problem discussed at the start of this discussion: the dilemma of who to trust in a complicated world. Practitioners of all kinds who adhere to this definition of true professionalism take a giant step toward being worthy of the trust that is placed in them. They are, in a sense, acknowledging the problems of conflict-of-interest and information asymmetry in their work and pledging to resolve all doubts in these areas in favor of their clients. With this, the great communal need for advice that is based in knowledge and training but, also, in faithfulness and safeguarding can be met on a wide scale. Thus, by demanding that those who seek to do professional work act as true professionals, and hold themselves to the highest standards of trustworthiness, society can make it easier for everyone to figure out who is worthy of their trust.