When There's an Expert in the Room - Introduce Themimage
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When There's an Expert in the Room - Introduce Them

For any topic of conversation in any group of people, there is a person in that group that knows the most about that subject. They might not be an expert - they might not even know a lot - but they are...

"The expert in the room"

Knowing who is the expert in the room can dramatically increase a group's ability to be effective and our individual ability to learn. Knowing when we are seen as the expert in the room is very important - because it means gaining an outsized responsibility and power to steer a conversation and lead others with credibility.

Similarly, knowing when we are not the expert in the room is very important - because it means needing to listen more in order to learn what we don't know and expand our own understanding of the world.

However, sometimes it is hard to identify whether we are or are not the expert in the room. And in these cases, we all fall on one of two sides. We either overestimate or underestimate our knowledge, experience, and ability to contribute on a subject. And our own bias on this spectrum can create problematic situations for ourselves and our teams.

"Instant Expert Syndrome"

When we overestimate our expertise, there is one obvious and one non-obvious negative effect. The obvious effect is that we can dominate the conversation around an issue with false confidence - believing ourselves to be right when we are in fact just on the dunce end of the Dunning-Kreuger effect.

I'll admit that there are many moments when I am this dunce. As someone with a constant ceaseless curiosity, I learn a little about a lot of things. Often, that's an asset in my life and it helps me connect dots that most people don't see. However, it can also lead me to have "Instant Expert" syndrome where I believe I know more than I do.

Thankfully, I at least am cognizant that this blind confidence can be detrimental. It can cause me and those I lead to make decisions based on incomplete information that can cause failure the longer those assumptions remain unchecked. However, overestimating our own expertise comes with a far worse, non-obvious effect: downplaying the contributions of the actual expert in the room.

Dominating a conversation means limiting the time and space for the real expert to participate. This leaves our team in a position where we have ignored valuable insight, but also leaves that individual feeling dejected, undervalued, or worse: dumb.

Over time, if this pattern continues, our explicit expert can actually start to feel like they're wrong and they're not the expert they thought they were. This can cause them to perform worse - constantly feeling insecure about their own skills and abilities. It can cause them to contribute less to conversations where their input is necessary and valuable.

If we factor in that females and minority groups are generally more likely to deal with things like imposter syndrome, we can see how this issue can dramatically affect some members of our teams more than others.

The confidence to ask instead of answer.

Sadly, there isn't an easy solution to these issues. Why? Because it's nearly impossible to know whose experience and knowledge is actually the most applicable to the nuanced, multi-faceted problems of work and life. Which means it's also very hard to identify when someone is overestimating or underestimating their contributions to a subject.

To that end, we also don't want turn people off from contributing during discussions, conversations and brainstorming because diverse perspectives - even of those less well-versed on a subject - are often extremely valuable and lead to better ideas.

However, simply being honest with ourselves and our teams about whether our tendency is to display a sense of over-confidence or a lack of confidence can be extremely valuable. As a person who can sometimes be the overconfident dunce, I try to counteract this behavior in two ways.

The first is by trying to reframe my opinions as questions in group discussions. Rather than spouting off what I think, I try (and fail sometimes) to examine why I think that way and pose a question that allows others to help me confirm or quell whatever line of thinking has led to that opinion. In essence, I try to lead with curiosity instead of contradiction.

I find this to be extremely helpful in team meetings and group discussions to not only dig into issues, but to also cause us as a group to understand assumptions we might be making or areas of projects that are unclear or have caused unintentional contradictions.

Posing opinions as questions also usually has the added benefit of working much better to explain my own perspective than indulging myself in a diatribe about my own beliefs. As frustrating as it can be, it's more effective to let other people convince themselves than it is to try and convince them.

The second way I try to combat my own, overconfident, tendency is by actively elevating the expertise of others. This can come in the form of directing questions to specific team members or hyping up previous credentials, accomplishments, and experiences within a meeting or in a chat thread. Saying something like,

Person's Name, I know that you had some previous experience solving a similar issue before, is there anything you learned that might be helpful here?

There is a challenge with using this technique though: it requires that us to know a lot about our teammates. That means gaining a deeper understanding of their backgrounds in one-on-one conversations. And not in a way that's interrogating, but from a place of genuine curiosity and compassion.

All-in-all, the point of the article boils down to the title, "When there's an expert in the room, introduce them". Understanding whether we under or overestimate our own expertise is our best way to balance the influences and perspectives on our teams.

Until next time.

Drew Lyton
Drew Lyton
Monday, July 3, 2023

I'm a software engineer, ex-founder and writer who cares deeply about creating a better relationship between technology and society. I'm currently writing a book about early stage entrepreneurship.


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