HOW TO BE A VULNERABLE EXPERT

“I know exactly how to solve this problem.”

“I have no clue how to solve this problem.”

You know the solution to the problem, but want your report to figure it out for herself. Or, you don’t know the solution but don’t want to appear incompetent.

Herein lies the paradox of the “vulnerable expert”.

The ability to admit that you don’t have all the answers and the willingness to take responsibility for your mistakes has now entered that list of most desired leadership skills.

Yes Leading with Vulnerability has been in the leadership lexicon for several years now.  Brene Brown espoused “the power of vulnerability” back in 2011:

It should be noted that the Vulnerability skill set looks different for everyone. For some, it means communicating empathically with direct reports. For others, apologizing for a decision that went pear-shaped.

For me, it means admitting you don’t have all the answers. You’re not always the expert.  At least not all the time.  Or, letting others find the answers and solutions for themselves – even when you do know it.

Additionally, the ability to recognize when you make a mistake and apologize for it. Or at least taking responsibility for your part in it.

Early in his first term President Obama was the first US leader of state I ever saw do this. He gained my deepest respect, as a result.

And yet, in a position of authority people look up to you and often expect you to have answers.  Sure, they realize there are some technical issues or niche areas where you don’t have expertise. 

But, you’re in a position of leadership for a reason.  As a result, expectations are attached, especially in some cultures and industries (e.g. Germany, Manufacturing).

According to HBR’s eye-opening “The Feedback Fallacy”

“The only realm in which humans are an unimpeachable source of truth is that of their own feelings and experiences”.

I don’t know about you but I agree wholeheartedly with this.

No doubt, you have extensive experience in your field of work. And, invaluable knowledge as a result.  Knowledge that you’ve been able to apply in specific work situations.  Therefore, you have expertise in that experience.  That is, expertise in those specific situations, with those people, under those circumstances.

Just like good old Heraclitus taught us with his quote – no two situations are ever the same.

Taking a personal example, working with groups and teams for over 20 years I’ve experienced a lot of conflicts.  In the best cases, I’ve helped teams solve or manage them.  You could say I’ve got extensive experience managing conflict.  Thus, I’ve gained expertise in those cases. 

However, the next conflict I experience might be similar to some of my previous cases, but it will be with different people bringing in difference emotions under different circumstances.

I will for sure use the gained knowledge and experience to help the new team manage its conflict. However, expert in this conflict management situation I am not.


HUMILITY IN ACTION

One of the things I admire about MIT Professor emeritus and father of Organizational Development Edgar Schein is his humility.  If there’s a living expert in my field, it’s him.

And yet, he approaches each new client with an attitude of: “you are the expert; you know your situation and the people involved best; how can I support you?”.

Without a doubt, this builds trust and respect. Fast.  Trust is arguably the most important element in any working relationship.

With 60+ years of expertise and experience, why do you think he brings the spirit of humility and curiosity to every new client?

Because they’re the expert in their situation, not him.

And I’m pretty sure he’s this way with those he leads and collaborates with. 

As established, not pretending to be the experts helps you build trust with the people you lead.  And more than anything, this is what you want for a healthy and effective working relationship.

On the other hand, demonstrating your expertise shows your competence and gives people faith in you – another must-have for healthy collaboration. 

After all, you’re the one in charge.  You are capable of handling the problems and making the tough decisions, right?

Maybe, but…

Your success depends on the trust level with your collaborators. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that trust has more than one source – competence, reliability and likability to name three.

As a leader you should always be looking for problems to co-solve and decisions to co-make – nothing builds trust and confidence faster than collective problem-solving and decision-making.

You might think that in your industry or your role this is unrealistic. Not to mention you’ve got 15+ years dealing with these specific types of issues – “I’ve seen and solved just about any problem a report could bring me…so why not tell her how to solve it?”, you might ask yourself.

That may be true.  However, it’s also true that it’s in their best interest to let them find their own approach. Or, better yet, co-create the approach with them.  That is, if you want them to stay motivated and truly own the problem.

By all means, say how you’ve approached such problems in the past and give examples that could help your reports move forward.  But nothing could be more de-motivating than simply giving them the answer.

If your child asks you how to spell a word, do you give them the answer?

Well, if you want for them to think for themselves and prepare them for future work life, I hope you ask them to look it up.

In addition to the motivation and ownership arguments, here are a few traps of expertise from Leadership Coach Julie Diamond:

  1. You rely on incorrect assumptions

Extensive experience allows you to sort information, recognize things and make decisions fast.  However, you could be drawing on incomplete information or incorrect assumptions.

2. You stop learning unfamiliar things

Applying the same solutions or way of thinking to new problems could backfire.

What would happen if you took apart your new car engine in hopes of giving it a little tune-up like you did with your classic Ford Mustang?

Diamond argues that real learning needs to involve something unfamiliar, even uncomfortable.  She believes it’s the discomfort that keeps you sharp and awake.

3. You overestimate your capacity

When you’re an expert, and when others see you as one, you can overlook your limits — limits to energy, capacity, etc. You become overconfident, more in love with your ideas, more confident of your capacity to succeed.

The key to avoiding this trap is to recognize and respect limits, but also “to realize that you might not actually see them”.

CONCLUSION

When you do offer advice or tell someone what has worked for you in the past, the language you use is important. That is, if you really want to help them excel.

Courtesy of ”The Feedback Fallacy”, here are a few examples of what to say and not say:

  • Say “Here’s what I would do”. Don’t say “Here’s what you should do”.
  • Say “Here’s what worked best for me, and here’s why”. Don’t say “Here’s where you need to improve”.
  • Say “Here’s my reaction”. Don’t say “Can I give you some feedback?”.

You get the picture.

Ultimately, you should welcome the chance to co-create a solution.  Or better yet, help a report solve a problem for herself.  Nothing is more motivating.  And that’s exactly what you want.

Based on my experience of leadership and team collaboration, there’s no better way to embrace this paradox than to collectively solve problems and make decisions.

When someone comes to you asking how to solve a specific problem, here are three energizing questions you can use:

  1. “What are 2-3 things that are working for you right now?”

Getting him to think about specific things that are going well helps him open up to new ways of thinking or acting.

2. “When you’ve had a problem like this in the past, what did you do that helped?”

This will remind him of a past success and give him confidence to tackle this new one.

3. “What do you already know that you need to do?  What do you already know or think works in this situation?”

As wisely stated in the HBR article: “Operate under the assumption that he already knows the solution – you’re just helping him recognize it.”

Above all, focus on what he wants to happen and what actions he can take right now. Ultimately, you want your collaborator to visualize the desired outcome and himself the one creating it.

What’s your approach to this paradox?

  • Tiffany W says:

    Great article Tim! Helpful, challenging, thought provoking. I appreciated the practical examples and application. Thank you!