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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Noble

If You’re Going to Buy Snake Oil, Make Sure it’s Actually Snake Oil

At the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago, entrepreneur Clark Stanley stood before a crowd of excited onlookers with a burlap sack in one hand. Observers watched in anticipation as he reached into the sack and retrieved a live rattlesnake. Before the gasps could finish, he slit the snake open with a knife and plunged it into a pot of boiling water. As the fat from the snake rose to the top, he skimmed it off and funneled it into a bottle labeled “Stanley’s Snake Oil.” And the crowd begged him to take their money.

From toothaches to animal bites, Stanley emphatically touted his snake oil as a cure-all for everything. There were two problems with Stanley’s claims, however. Although oil from the Chinese water snake actually did possess healing properties, this was not the case for rattlesnake oil. What’s more, Stanley’s Snake Oil didn’t actually contain any snake oil. Federal investigators seized a shipment of it and found it was simply mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine. Clark Stanley was a fraud.

Fast-forward 130 years and we still have our share of Clark Stanleys today. Only, the modern version is a bit more sophisticated. Today’s Clark Stanley promises cure-alls for business, for assessing people, or for professional development. He’s a walking marketing campaign to convince you that he’s the most intelligent man in the world who understands human behavior better than anyone, yet he has little to no actual credible education or training in the field. There’s no snake oil in his snake oil.

As the lead psychologist at one of my previous organizations, I was approached by Clark Stanleys on a regular basis. They peddled tools to perfectly predict job performance and exercises to improve intelligence. They name-dropped other prestigious organizations who used their products and presented in-house research that was not peer-reviewed to establish their legitimacy. Fortunately, I had the trust and autonomy of my leadership to shoo them away before they did any real damage. However, that has not been the experience of some of my colleagues. I’ve heard too many stories where these charismatic pseudo-psychologists would find their way in front of decision-makers and win them over by boiling rattlesnakes. That’s a problem…for a multitude of reasons.

The Problem with Buying Snake Oil

We seem to be susceptible to a peculiar bias of trusting outside entities before trusting our own. This is akin to a kid taking the advice of a friend’s parent when his own father has given him the same advice a dozen times over. For some reason, we tend to overvalue the input from people outside our own circle and undervalue the guidance of those closer to us. This means, when you are approached by a snake oil salesman, you are already more likely to be persuaded by his promises and romanticize the notion that his elixir may be the cure to your company’s problems. This person must know something we don’t.

Falling for the tricks of a charlatan is bad for business for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason is its waste of time and money. Yet, resource wasting aside, there’s a bigger problem with letting a snake oil salesman into your organization particularly when you already have your own internal expert. It hurts morale and degrades the trust of your people. When you, as a leader, bring in an outside “expert” in an area in which you already have an internal expert, you communicate distrust of your own employee’s expertise. You are communicating that you found someone better, someone more competent, someone to show him/her how to do their job properly.

Most subject matter experts are driven by their quest for mastery of their profession. They take great pride in their craft and can derive much fulfillment from providing value to their organization. When a subject matter expert feels like their input is not valued, it’s a sharp blow to their job satisfaction. It’s an existential crisis in the sense that they lose their purpose for being there. When a subject matter expert feels like her own employer doesn’t trust her judgment or value her expertise, she may consider looking for another employer who will.

However, not all salesmen are selling mineral oil. Some have bone fide Chinese water snake oil that has the potential to benefit your organization. This begs the question: how can you tell the difference between a true expert and a modern-day Clark Stanley? And, if they are a true expert, how can you bring them on board without hurting the engagement of your internal staff?

Consider Their Credentials

The first question to answer pertains to their legitimacy. Are they actually an expert? The “confidence equals competence” bias is alive and well. In other words, the more confident people are, the more competence we incorrectly attribute to them. There are very successful people in the consulting world with minimal leadership experience and nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in something irrelevant but have others convinced that they have a doctorate in leadership studies. Do your homework and make sure they actually have the credentials to be an authority in this area before falling for their charlatan pitches.

Consult With Your Internal Expert

If you already have an internal expert in the area of the snake oil salesman, ask yourself why you feel the need to bring in someone else. If you are following best hiring practices, you have likely placed great emphasis on getting the right person in your organization. Trust your hiring process and trust their expertise. If you still believe the external expert brings something to the table, have a transparent conversation with your internal expert on your plan to bring someone external on board and the reasons why. Seeking their input will serve to benefit you in multiple ways.

Your internal expert can help you understand the field consensus on the topic in question. When you dig deep enough in any particular field, you’ll reach areas of disagreement among subject matter experts. Put frankly, the further you go, the more you realize how little we actually know. True experts understand this and are hesitant to speak with certainty on many areas, because there rarely is certainty in science. This isn’t the case for pseudo-experts. They know just enough to be dangerous and speak with conviction on what they are selling. As American poet Charles Bukoski put it, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” These controversial areas are often exploited by snake oil salesmen which may give the illusion that they are more competent than your internal expert. A discussion with your internal expert may shed some light on the legitimacy of their claims and may provide you with the information you need to make a well-informed decision.

As previously mentioned, bringing an external expert on board can be a slap in the face to your internal expert, as it sends the message that their input isn’t valuable. You can soften or even prevent this blow to their ego by having a conversation with your internal expert first. If you take the time to provide your rationale as well as seek their input, you will allow them to have a voice in the decision-making process which will lessen the likelihood that they will feel slighted or disregarded.

Consider Their Motives

If your internal expert and external consultant are at odds, consider the motives of each party. While your internal expert may be motived for job security, the external expert is almost always motived by money. They profit from selling you on their product. These profits could be in forms other than money. Depending on the prestige of your organization, don’t forget the value that their association with you holds. That is, their ability to advertise that they are working with you is just as valuable as money given its influential power. This is called Social Proof and is the same reason street musicians will put their own money in their tip jars- people are more likely to tip when they see that others have tipped. Snake oil salesmen are savvy persuaders who know this trick well.

Ask The Right Questions

Specifically, how will their product help your company? Do they have research to back their claims? Was that research conducted by an independent party or by their own company who may be biased towards a particular result? Do they intend to measure outcomes and prove their intervention will have its intended effect with your company? Put the onus on them to make a convincing argument how and why you can benefit from them.


At the end of the day, the consideration of hiring an external consultant is not a bad thing. You want what’s best for your company and your people. Many leaders get excited when they believe they have found something that will give their company an edge over the competition. The sad truth is there are no panaceas and no one knows everything. The professor-like gurus you see all over social media are simply marketing their own brand. They are individuals who profit off of attention rather than actual programmatic effectiveness. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable products and people out there. It just takes diligence to find them. By taking a skeptic’s approach, you may find some actual snake oil in your snake oil.

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