How to Work with Experts
January 30, 2017 7:43 AM   Subscribe

How do you teach and work with experts who believe they already know more than you do?

A particular need in my job is to work closely with those that are expert and successful in their fields - be they lawyers, professors, etc., their work success is tied to their depth of knowledge about a particular subject. And many of these folks have heaps of accomplishment and success, so their confidence is, let's say, high.

That said, my role - as admittedly, as much more of a generalist - is to suggest direction and strategy that is useful to them in workplace matters that are not their expertise. But, they often reject or are resistance to my support, b/c they've been successful in other arenas of their work world, and figure they know better than I do.

Does any one have suggestions on how to handle this? Any workplace tricks that have worked for you, or even any readings I could take a look at?
posted by RajahKing to Work & Money (16 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I deal with this in my work too (though not quite as much because technology is one of those things that many smart people feel okay about saying "I have no idea what I am doing here.")

We try to get friendly experts on-side and have them signal to their peers that it is okay to listen to us and use our services. We try to encourage peer-to-peer networking opportunities for the experts to share "wins" that were accomplished in part because of our assistance.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:47 AM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I get this at times because I work with faculty and policy makers, and I'm (just) a librarian. My role isn't to know everything, it's to facilitate and make stuff happen.

The main thing I keep in mind is that my job and role is not theirs, and that I need to be confident about that. I take suggestions under advisement, but ultimately I do the work I need to to get the job done (in a way that satisfies the project manager/grant/whatever). Usually nobody pays attention long enough to care, but sometimes I need to refer them to the lead to sort out their issues (which usually have nothing to do with the task at hand).

Ultimately though, a lot of these experts see the value of these kinds of support roles because it means they don't have to be overly involved with details.

I know it's hard to be confident about that, but power through it and own your role. Once I figured that out, the work became less stressful.
posted by kendrak at 7:59 AM on January 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

It would be helpful to know how your interaction with them is triggered - are you reaching out to them cold, is someone mandating that they meet with you, or are they voluntarily calling you?

In any case, pay attention to soft skills. Treat them with respect. Genuinely laud their accomplishments. Offer your advice as a suggestion, and let them know how it has helped others in similar positions. Think about how your advice will help them with their biggest concerns and needs, like avoiding paperwork or saving time.

You might get mileage out of rules from books like How to Win Friends and Influence People - this Wikipedia summary should give you an idea. If I were you, I'd try one new rule from that summary during each meeting and note whether it helped your relationship with the client.
posted by beyond_pink at 8:07 AM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wow, I feel your pain. I have to do this a lot too. Training, Process Improvement, etc.

So much of it comes down to challenging deeply held Ways Of Doing Things that take people out of their comfort zones and BOY do they resent that. Perhaps some of the pushback you feel is an outgrowth of that? If so, it may be helpful to always include some element of the value prop in terms of change/learning etc.

Why are they there? What is the purpose of the learning effort? How long will it take before a payoff or benefit is realized? What's in it for them? Most smart people can at least recognize the theory of change, even if they have a hard time embracing the mechanics of it.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:09 AM on January 30, 2017

Sell it as "optimization," or, "how to do what you do now even better."
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:09 AM on January 30, 2017

I run into something like this with depressing regularity. I have dealt with it not by fighting back, but by detaching. As long as they pay me and my name isn't on their bastardization of my work, I've decided I don't care.

Also: I assume they're paying you for this advice. Are they paying you enough for this advice? People tend to value things more highly if they pay more for them.
posted by adamrice at 8:15 AM on January 30, 2017 [11 favorites]

Sometimes I get some traction by framing it as "I get paid to know the nitty-gritty of [policy, regulation, work done in other areas, whatever] so you don't have to. Let me work with you on this thing so you can [do this thing easier, stay out of prison, get more support for your funding, whatever] and that will let you get back to that other thing you do really, really well."

Sometimes I lay on a lot of fluff asking for information about what they're working on and talking up how interesting and innovative it is, even if it's secretly something I don't care about THAT much - doing that up front seems to help set a good tone with some people. (It helps that around here I usually am genuinely interested, my folks are doing really cool work, but sometimes one must fake the enthusiasm a wee bit.)

The thing that really helps most though is definitely getting buy-in from someone closer to them who supports what I do. I work with faculty, so my best advocates are other faculty. And I have no shame about telling that to the ones I have worked well with, if they give me the slighest opening by saying something nice about my work, by telling them "Hey, I wish everyone else felt that way, if you get a chance to say nice things about me to the other faculty, please do!" I also have some luck getting their department administrators on board; they're more likely to understand what I do and also to know the individual personalities and hot-buttons of the people I'm having trouble with, so they can sometimes help me approach them in the best way to set up a good working relationship.
posted by Stacey at 8:51 AM on January 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

My answer may not be helpful to you, but in my case these people listen to me because I have a direct hand in controlling whether they keep their licenses or not. But it sounds like that's not an option for you.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:58 AM on January 30, 2017

they often reject or are resistance to my support, b/c they've been successful in other arenas of their work world, and figure they know better than I do

I gather you're supporting and advising the expert to make a decision. So, view it as providing the best and most current information to move forward with, which is what I'm assuming you are paid to do. I've heard it referred to as "putting the person in the driver's seat". Once the decision is made, let's move on to the next issue. Also, if their decision is the bottom line, they bear the responsibility of the decision.

knowing better than I do

With respect to knowing better than someone, my take on an expert or a successful person is they are relying on their experience of failures and successes with their decision-making, Be it right or wrong, they've learned to anticipate and adapt as they see fit.
posted by mountainblue at 9:15 AM on January 30, 2017

If they don't think they have a problem, they are not going to buy a solution. If you can't talk to them in their own vocabulary, they are going think you don't understand their problem. If the problem is not a big deal for them, they aren't going to care much. If you start out by saying "I have a great idea for you", they are not going to believe it.

So, you have start by learning about how they work, by how they view the problem area, by what they have already tried. Then, if you haven't lost them, you have a chance.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:45 AM on January 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

Can you bring in other faculty? Peer to peer learning has been successful. So, as an example, I develop a curriculum but I bring in judges to teach other judges using that curriculum (and I am not a judge). Faculty have to be on board with your philosophy and learning objectives.
posted by anya32 at 11:07 AM on January 30, 2017

Tangentially previously
posted by rhizome at 11:20 AM on January 30, 2017

I spoke to a colleague about this recently and he said he likes to have either an older peer or a supervisor present for at least an initial interview, so that a kind of subordination is implied. You can also try a third point of reference (referring to an agreement this person signed, a problem for which they admit your expertise is needed, etc.) but the efficacy of that method would depend on the person in question.

If this person has subordinates that are e.g. complaining about them, there are methods by which you can make the(ir) problem as seen by subordinates more objectively visible, for example the Crumple & Toss exercise (Zuieback).

It may also help to look at your psychological processes and compare against the general types of persons with whom you would have these concerns. For example, an In-Charge client (see Linda Berens, Understanding Yourself and Others) may seem impatient and hesitant to take advice from a Chart-the-Course consultant; in this case the communications style of the consultant may need to be tailored to be less "informing" and more "directing", i.e. telling and emphasizing follow-through instead of their typical approach of explaining or describing. It has been observed that telling In-Charge clients "here's the plan, get with it, you'll be evaluated" can work far better than "here's what we think, what do you think."

Hope some of this can be helpful to you.
posted by circular at 11:38 AM on January 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

1) Sell them on the concept of 'domain knowledge'
2) Rebrand yourself away from being a 'generalist' and into a specialist/an expert in your domain of knowledge
3) If you actually aren't a specialist (but, you know more about your domain than they do!), appeal to authority with citation(s)
posted by porpoise at 11:48 AM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

I suggest you get a copy of First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals. Lots of practical guidance for day-to-day issues where you are charged with managing a group you don't necessarily have authority over.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:36 PM on January 30, 2017 [3 favorites]

There are three things that you typically see with people like this:

1) Their experience is that most people trying to prove they know more than them are trying to put them down and it is a really obnoxious social experience they are coming from. You address this by making sure you go out of your way to not come across as playing that game.

2) Many highly competent people are not only good at the thing that is their area of expertise, they often also find that they are better than many other people at the other person's supposed area of expertise. Thus, they are skeptical when they meet someone who thinks they can be helpful or useful. You must "get your foot in the door" by proving that you are actually useful and not yet another time wasting source of bad information. Try to do some small useful thing early. This will buy you more leeway.

3) Many highly competent people routinely get disagreement from people who simply do not understand/know what they know. In short, their subjective experience is that if someone disagrees with them, it is because they are "stupid." You need to prove that your difference of opinion is not based on you being "dumb." It is based on you having a different base of knowledge that is useful in this particular circumstance.

You could try googling 'social and emotional needs of the gifted." This may get you resources you haven't seen before. Very bright people often have a long history of simply terrible social experiences surrounding the ways in which they are gifted. Understanding the general pattern of how society creates sick systems that harm bright kids, who grow up to be bright adults with baggage, can be useful in figuring out how to interact with highly competent individuals.
posted by Michele in California at 6:17 PM on January 30, 2017 [1 favorite]

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