5 ways to spot a charlatan

It can be hard to separate the experts from the fakes - especially if they're all consultants.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 05 Jul 2017

Once upon a time, the key ingredients of human potential concerned physical strength and dexterity. However, since the invention of tools and the advent of the knowledge economy, the most sought-after human talents are intellectual. Indeed, the capacity to translate information into expertise, to identify and solve abstract problems, and to influence others' opinions are much more important than big biceps or the ability to kill a bison.

Unfortunately, this makes talent harder to judge. For instance, while it is easy to guess that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be more likely than Woody Allen to survive a fight with a bear, it is much more difficult to guess who would score higher on an IQ test.

As talents got harder to evaluate, it became easier for people to fake them. Nowhere is this clearer than in consulting, where clients agree to replace their own ignorance with the apparent expertise of a consultant. The consultant's success depends on his or her ability to persuade the client that they are able to solve their problems, though as the saying goes, 'a consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time, and then keeps the watch'.

So, how can we tell if a consultant is an actual expert or merely a charlatan? Here are five big red flags:

1. Check if they over-claim. Make remarks about non-existing people, books or companies to see if they pretend to know them. If they do you are in trouble.

2. Google-search what they say and write. If you find a close match online, particularly in Wikipedia or TED, you can save your money.

3. Watch out for cliches. If they spend a lot of time talking about neuro-something, agility, VUCA, growth mindset, millennials, digital leadership, or disrupting something, you can safely assume they have more style than substance (without actually having that much style).

4. Check out their LinkedIn profile. If they describe themselves as innovative, motivational, transformational, ninja, or a thought-leader, they are probably none of those things.

5. Ask for evidence. If they quote Malcolm Gladwell, Howard Gardner, or Daniel Goleman - as opposed to scientific peer-reviewed articles - you can forget about them.

Finally, it is important to note that in consulting, price is a poor indicator of talent. In fact, even smart clients are fooled into thinking that expensive advice is legit.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @drtcp.

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