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Why taking up an ‘anti-expert mindset’ leads you to fresh ideas

When others always look to you as the one-and-only specialist, you’re less likely to reach outside of your comfort zone and stagnate.

Why taking up an ‘anti-expert mindset’ leads you to fresh ideas
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]

You’ve worked hard to educate yourself and develop your expertise, and it’s likely helped you get to where you are today. Therefore, the notion of no longer being the person with the answers may sound preposterous.

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However, sometimes being the expert comes with steep costs, especially as you advance in your career.

Take for instance my client, Samantha, who heads an intellectual property law group for a media company. She wanted to grow her career, but she liked diving deep into legal matters, which kept her from delegating sufficiently and limited her bandwidth. Or Vijay, who led a large Quality Assurance lab at a life sciences company and had inadvertently become a bottleneck in his department’s ability to move quickly. Both Samantha and Vijay were showing up as technical experts for their teams, but their narrow and focused efforts were diminishing their respective professional trajectories, as well as their team’s growth.

Here’s the thing about being the expert: When you present yourself as the expert, you initiate a one-way communication channel where you’re the one to deliver all the information, set the plan, make the decisions, and take the credit for the success or the failure. And while that feels good for the ego, it also closes off potential learning, growth, and innovation.

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To be sure, there are situations where demonstrating your expertise in this way is the best approach. And there are also jobs where your greatest value is as a skilled specialist with in-depth knowledge. The problem is that you may be taking on the role of expert unconsciously and reflexively. In turn, this can limit your career growth and lessen motivation for others.

Imagine that instead of showing up with the answers, you ask questions, listen, and consider perspectives and input from different sources. Not taking the stance of an expert—but an explorer. Yes, you’re letting go of some control, and the conversation may take longer, but what you gain is well worth the trade-off.

You may expand your mode of thinking or discover a better way or solution. You may inspire cooperation from others, so that they are more eager to contribute in the future. Further, you may gain time to work on other projects and broaden your personal impact.

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Letting go of formerly beneficial habits and hard-held beliefs about ourselves can be the key to growing professionally and advancing your career. The problem is that after a lifetime of being rewarded for having the right answers and promoted for your expertise, letting go of this habit and self-identity can be difficult. 

Here are five strategies to cultivate curiosity and growth and release yourself from being the expert in the room.

IDENTIFY YOUR “KNOW-IT-ALL” CIRCUMSTANCES

Study your typical work week and meeting schedule. What are the times when being the expert might be holding you or your team back? Then, take into account certain clues when a few of the following questions arise. Are there topics where you have unshakable convictions? Do you notice times when you feel like you want to fill in gaps in the conversation with your thoughts and ideas? Are there times when people reflexively look to you for decisions? These situations may be prime opportunities for you to take a backseat to instead lead with curiosity.

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PICK LOW-RISK SITUATIONS FOR EXPERIMENTATION

High-stakes presentations where critical stakeholders expect your recommendations are not the place to try on this approach. Instead, consider your team and cross-functional meetings that are lower in visibility. These lower-risk situations provide you with a more comfortable place to practice and start creating a new habit. Discussions at the front end of new projects are also great times to practice asking questions instead of demonstrating your expertise.

ADOPT A BEGINNER’S MINDSET

Stemming from a Zen Buddhism concept, a beginner’s mind sets aside preconceptions and assumptions. To cultivate this open mindset, try to view a subject or project as entirely fresh and begin asking many, many questions. Ask why, what, or how it may look to someone else.

As you question, you will learn, evolve, and expand your thinking and awareness. And from that curiosity comes innovation.

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READY YOUR PROBING QUESTIONS

Simple widely applicable questions that encourage others to share include: How do you see it?; Tell me what you’re thinking here?; or What led you to those ideas/conclusions?

Naturally, there may be other more specific questions related to the situation that you can ask instead. But having some all-purpose questions in your back pocket will help you maintain a curious approach when the urge to give advice arises.

PREPARE FOR RESISTANCE

The way we relate to and interact with others develops into a predictable pattern over time, and others may be thrown off when we change. Like other systems, relationships and group dynamics are affected by the principle of homeostasis, and people will unconsciously attempt to pull you back into the old comfortable ways.

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When Vijay approached the conversation with questions versus answers at the first few meetings, there was an awkward silence in the room. His team naturally still expected him to provide advice and direction. But slowly, over a few weeks, the group started to shift. Vijay noticed his team speaking up more, proactively sharing their ideas and recommendations, and taking greater ownership of their projects.

Others will unwittingly lay little traps, asking, What do you think? or How do you think we should proceed? 

Every cell in your body will want to provide advice, and a prepared response can help you stay the course. Samantha chose this response: “I have some ideas that I’ll be happy to share, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts first.” It’s also helpful to let your team and trusted colleagues know that you’re practicing a new approach so they’re less confused by your new behavior.

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After a lifetime of building and being rewarded for your deep expertise, shifting your approach to curiosity and leading with questions can be challenging. However, if your goal is to advance your career and help develop and motivate others, coming from a place of questions—over answers—is critical.


Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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