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How to lead teams with more expertise than you

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In today’s fast paced world, managers, especially top executives, can't be experts in everything.

The "leader as expert" might work for an engineer who becomes a manager of an engineering team, but no leader can be an expert in all aspects of the business they lead.

Leaders and managers today must not only learn how to wear many hats but accept that they will be managing people who have more expertise in a particular area than they do and may be a good deal older/younger and have more experience than them as well.

This isn’t something that just applies to leaders and managers, we all encounter that gut-gnawing nervousness when we look for professionals to depend on, whether it’s an accountant or a car mechanic. We have to balance the awareness that we are not experts with the fact that occasionally we do get the wool pulled over our eyes.

What happens when you start leading people who have more expertise than you?

How can you lead them when they know a lot more about their work than you do?

Welcome to reality: You are now the leader without expertise — Many leaders at this point feel frustrated, tired and disoriented, even angry or start believing that they should not be in their role This is the point where careers can derail.

Lacking confidence or readiness in a role is not unusual and is known by psychologists as ‘the impostor phenomenon’.  It is well researched and more common than most people realise.

The phenomenon occurs equally across genders and affects not only the thoughts of those in charge, but it is important to note, their actions, too.

Research suggests that tasks are often, not only delegated according to a person’s skill set or performance, but tasks are assigned based on how similar a person is perceived to be to the leaders/managers.

Similar values, attitudes and dispositions all effect how likely an employee is to be selected for an assignment. 

Now you may think that you don’t assign tasks that way, that you are different, that you assign tasks on merit or skill set but the following research may give you food for thought.

Myriam Bechtoldt at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management investigated the imposter phenomenon with 190 managers from different work sectors in Germany.

They found those managers who identified as low in self-confidence assigned routine tasks more to team members who also had low self-confidence.

Significantly, the more that leaders/managers felt like imposters, the greater chance they had of assigning challenging tasks to team members who felt like imposters and struggled with self-confidence.

But perhaps, I can hear you say, the leaders/managers were being clever and simply boosting the confidence of self-doubting team members’ by assigning them challenging tasks to give them the experience of being successful?

If that were the case, routine tasks would also be assigned with the same bias. But the research suggested that managers tended to delegate routine tasks to self-doubting team members even when it did not improve their promotability.

Then, maybe the results could be explained because the managers recognised that people with low confidence often have improved conscientiousness. Or perhaps the managers were discriminating against those with self-confidence?

The researchers investigated these ideas as well and measured conscientiousness and found it did not influence the assignment of tasks and there were no associations between self-confident individuals and task delegation, suggesting that discrimination played no part in the process.

The EBW View

This research uncovers some key biases in leadership behaviours regarding how tasks and opportunities are assigned when leaders feel they are lacking readiness for a role, are working with people outside their area of expertise.

The underlying thrust of the research suggests that using our Emotional Intelligence at work to develop an understanding of emotional biases is key making decisions about which expert team members to best to assign different roles and tasks.  

Being better aware of why you delegate tasks and roles will enable you to build powerful teams and help you encourage colleagues to feel valued while giving them appropriate opportunities to showcase their skillset whilst delivering on the team's vision and goals.

Here are 3 top tips for leading a team that is outside your area of expertise:

  1. Stay Aware – Use Your Emotional Intelligence
    Favouring people similar to yourself with time and responsibility may make you feel more comfortable but be aware of why you are doing this. Encouraging the diversification of tasks will stop your business or team from amplifying similar opinions and ideas that may not be the optimal way forward.
  2. Measure Progress
    Having clear milestones and checkpoints, is key for both the manager and the managed. Focus your relationship around agreed-upon, measurable objectives. Leading outside your area of expertise is about being an expert in in monitoring and measuring progress. Make sure the expert or the more experienced individual understands that they can gain more flexibility and room to manoeuvre as long as measurable progress is being made.
  3. Create a supportive, collaborative work climate
    Authenticity is king - you can gain credibility and disarm even the most unapproachable expert by saying things such as, "I'm still learning here, so could you help me understand why X works here better than Y?" Your team will respect your humble questions and trust you more.

    Asking your experts what you can do to help (and then doing it) is key in gaining credibility. If they need more time to get something done and somebody is breathing down their necks about a deadline, then do the "blocking and tackling" work that every great leader does to protect and support the team. If you've got their back, they'll have your back. Understand where and when you can help, and then help.

If your leaders or teams need help working together - check out the buttons below to find out how EBW assessments and tools can help.

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