Analysis | Professional Development

Analysts Must Be Objective

by admin
February 10, 2021
Scales of justice

If there was a prime directive for analysts when I was at the Central Intelligence Agency, it was that we and our work had to be objective. Properly serving policymakers and the country required a personal detachment from the issues we followed. Any analyst in the public or private sector should have a similar commitment to objectivity, regardless of their area of expertise and even when—unlike Agency analysts–they are expected to recommend policy options to their customers. I see three key elements that must be hard-wired into analysts’ professional ethos and training for them to be objective.

The first objectivity requirement is that analysts set aside their interests when making an analytic call. It’s possible but rare that an analyst’s assessment could affect their personal fortunes. More often, the interest at stake relates to the analysis itself. I’ve seen analysts become so wedded to their analytic line that they fight to maintain it despite strong contradictory evidence. For example, an analyst could aggressively defend an assessment such as “Country X is developing a nuclear weapon” because they have become vested in it through numerous written products and presentations. By pinning their credibility and reputation on a specific analytic line, they risk eroding their objectivity.

The second objectivity requirement is that analysts must ignore their personal opinions. The temptation to factor into analysis feelings about an issue, person, or policy outcome is a common challenge to objectivity. As a CIA analyst, I could never let my personal preferences affect my analysis or the level of effort I put into serving my customers. There were times when I disagreed completely with US policy related to the countries I followed, but I had to check my opinions at the door each morning and support that policy and its makers to the best of my abilities. I’ve seen private-sector analysts similarly struggle with this challenge as they provide analysis and policy options to their internal and external corporate customers.

During my career, this requirement for objectivity was particularly palpable for analysts involved in supporting the runup to the US invasion of Iraq, as their expertise led many of them to disagree strongly with assumptions US policymakers were making about the coming invasion. Nonetheless, they answered every question to the best of their abilities without factoring in their own opinions. And when things in Iraq went sideways, those same analysts volunteered to go into harm’s way and deploy to Iraq rather than sit at home saying, “I told you so.” That is objective professionalism at its finest.

This objectivity challenge becomes more complicated when the opinions in question are tied to what an analyst sees as fundamental values, like human rights, fairness, or environmental protection. Providing analysis about the Chinese Government’s response to a proposed company plan to appease Beijing that threatens the freedoms of Chinese citizens is one example of just such a moral dilemma that private-sector analysts face. In such cases, each analyst must decide what’s negotiable in terms of their sense of right and wrong. Only they can decide if they’re willing to support their organization’s actions that to some degree feel wrong, immoral, or just shady. Sometimes the only choice for analysts in such a position is to find a new job that won’t pose such moral conflicts.

The final element of objectivity is the need to speak truth to power. This means having the intellectual honesty to deliver an unwelcome message to customers, up to and including the President of the United States or a CEO. I worked on numerous issues throughout my Agency career where I knew my analysis would be completely unwelcome by policymakers, usually because it indicated their policies were failing. I couldn’t let the hopes and preferences of my customers affect my analysis; I needed the courage to deliver the bad news.

To get this right, analysts can’t factor a customer’s probable reaction into what they say. Shying away from a conclusion that a company’s policy is doomed to fail because it would anger the CEO won’t help her. However, Analysts can and should factor expected reactions into how they say things by learning the art of delivering tough news without seemingly sticking a finger in their customer’s eye by explicitly blaming them for a problem, for example. Analysts must be sophisticated enough that their customers will pay attention, understand, and believe even the most distasteful news.

One final point on objectivity: I’m not naïve enough to expect that all analysts work in an environment where objectivity is valued. Some analysts are expected to deliver only those messages that will be well received and further their company’s interests. I worked with one firm that made it clear analysts were to tell customers what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. This was a disorienting departure from my Agency experience. You must be aware of your organization’s expectations regarding telling truth to power. If they expect it, then always have the courage to deliver unwelcome news. If they want you to suppress the hard truths, then assess whether you’re comfortable working in such an environment in the first place.