More and more often we encounter situations in which we need to call on experts, that is, people with knowledge and experience in a specific topic, superior to the ones we can rely on as an individual, group or organization.
In my experience, ascertaining whether we are actually in the presence of an expert in a given discipline is never easy; moreover, verifying it can prove difficult, even risky.
Let’s see why.
Numerous reputable studies show that people who have accumulated considerable expertise in a specific matter frequently exhibit some attitudes and behaviours, which I summarize below:
- They are aware of the existing knowledge gap and do not care too much that the person in front of them fully understands the content of the discussion;
- They tend not to put themselves in the shoes of the interlocutor. Experts who ask questions such as “If I were in their position what would I do?” or ” What can really prove to be useful for them?” are quite rare;
- They have great confidence in what they know and tend to overlook or even dismiss what is not part of their background;
- They tend to be very confident in their views and make predictions that quite often turn out to be incorrect. In fact, they are frequently victims of the Procrustes bed, as they tend to reduce the complexity of the situation to just what they know;
- They are inclined to overestimate expected outcomes.
If all this is true, how should we deal with it? Can we safely renounce the input of experts?
We are facing daily a world increasingly complex, which demands knowledge that we do not possess: where to find it, if not in people/organizations that possess more?
Ultimately, how can we use expert input without running too many risks, perhaps by checking whether claimed knowledge and experience are consistent?
Here, below, are some guidelines that I follow regularly and suggest you test out:
- Be conscious of attitudes and behaviours held by experts that I have just mentioned;
- Do not be intimidated by them, because no one walks on water. The expert in a specific subject may be ignorant of the knowledge you hold;
- Don’t be afraid to appear “the one who doesn’t know.” You have the right to understand, and the person in front of you has to help you, especially if he/she is receiving a fee: in short, keep away from non-peer listening;
- Be irreverent. Challenge what the expert says, and ask him to mention sources without fear of hurting his/her sensibilities: if he/she knows the topic, he/she will be able to cope with your questions;
- Wary of general statements, not supported by evidence;
- To test his specific knowledge, ask him to describe a process or a solution. Questions such as “How would you deal with such a situation?” or “How would you structure a solution that works in this context?” will require him not to provide a pointed answer but to bring order to his thoughts, testing whether the knowledge he owns can rise to the rank of solution;
- Do not ask him “What should I do?” but “What would you do in my place?“. This will increase his/her involvement.
In conclusion, the best way to deploy an expert is not to give him/her complete confidence, since his/her knowledge and experience must necessarily fit in a context that we are familiar with.
If, after one or more meetings that you have gone through following these guidelines, your expert has “stuck it out” then you can continue to cautiously employ him.
If, instead, you see him/her becoming nervous or impatient…
What do you think?