Leaders of sustainable companies understand that there is much greater value in maintaining a stance of lifelong learning rather than a stance of expertise. This is because the most significant problems most organizations face are not solved by experts, but require adaptation, new learning, and stakeholder engagement.
There are three challenges that an expertise stance tends to create: listening, power, and relevance.
Challenge 1: Listening.
There are plenty of times and places where our expertise does, in fact, solve a problem that no one in an organizational system could otherwise solve. Nevertheless, positioning ourselves as the experts in a knowledge economy puts us on the tempting path toward being know-it-alls, and tends to put us more in the position of talkers than of listeners. When we come in knowing the answer, we don’t listen as well, because we tend to know what someone is going to say.
Or at least we think we do.
In these cases, our listening tends to be more passive than active. Our minds are less focused on what someone is telling us, and more focused on what we need to tell them next. Therefore, we tend to miss nuance, dismiss contrary evidence (known as confirmation bias), and may even miss the real problem because we allow our interlocutor’s framing of the problem to frame it for us.
An expertise stance tends to make us poor listeners. But that is not all.
Challenge 2: Power
An expertise stance tends to put us in a power position in relationships with others. Approaching our relationships with customers, clients, staff, vendors – even the overall marketplace or society – from the stance of expertise puts us in an over-under relationship with them all.
When we are the experts, we tend to devalue those who may suggest there is nuance to the problem that we aren’t getting. We tend to question the intelligence, creativity, education, or even value as a person of those who disagree with us. This power relationship created by our dependence on our expertise reinforces organizational systems where some are under- or de-valued, and where others have outsized influence. Our expertise suggests we are somehow “better”. Others “don’t get it”, and we end up patronizing them – which is a form of infantilizing, disempowering, and at times, dehumanizing others. We tend not to give others the benefit of the doubt if they don’t perform to our standards. This promotes organizational injustice, increases misery, and, of course, reduces engagement and productivity.
And this power position, created by our expertise, crashes into the third challenge we see: our own relevance.
Challenge 3: Relevance
When we stand as experts, we always are in “job interview mode”, having to show what we know and why that is important. Even more so, we have to demonstrate that we ourselves are valuable and important. An expertise stance has us standing up every day and saying, “look what I am doing! See how important I am?”
As with all exclamations of this type, the more we shout, the more others realize that we don’t believe in our own value, and that we don’t feel secure in our knowledge. With any static expertise, there is a chance that someone else can come along and do it better, or some new technology will make what we know obsolete.
It’s one thing for a person who comes from a typically under-recognized place or someone who has had to fight prejudice to demonstrate their value out loud. But once in a place of recognition and/or power, the continued appeals to proof and relevance show up more as insecurity (justifiably or not), than as further demonstrations against disempowerment, prejudice, or devaluation.
In these three ways, the expertise stance actually prevents us from doing good work, risks us tending toward injustice, and very quickly rings hollow to those we are trying to convince. What alternatives exist?
While we could take the model of Socrates and declare that we know nothing, or decide to be anti-expert and start working in areas that are outside our competence, there are ways to be experts – clearly competent, capable, and knowledgeable – that don’t require the expertise stance.
We Haven’t Seen It All.
In this short phrase, we steer a path forward. For some of us, it becomes a centering phrase, a mantra of sorts, to ground us in reality. “We haven’t seen it all” implies six things all at once:
- We have seen some things. Maybe a lot of things. Thus, we have experience.
- We need to listen carefully to see if this is new.
- The problem to be solved is something we and the client / customer need to work together to resolve. Therefore, an over-under relationship isn’t beneficial.
- The problem may not be obvious, framed clearly, or defined well.
- We are open to learning something new.
- We are open to not being the solution.
“We haven’t seen it all”, therefore, is a sustainable stance.
- We can acknowledge our true experience and expertise without having to prove it.
- We start by listening to others.
- We partner with others rather than overpower them.
- We stay relevant by learning and adapting.
This sustainable stance allows us to empower others as we encounter the most challenging problems organizations face: to adapt, to grow, to innovate, and discover their own version of what’s next.