This summer, I’ve been quite busy working on projects and presenting at conferences related to the topic of intergenerational interactions at work, my primary area of academic research. While attending the Academy of Management annual meeting in Atlanta, the most prestigious international conference for management academics where a Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence student (Alperen Arslantas) and I presented on this topic, we interacted with many other experts in the broad field of management. Throughout this and my other experiences this summer, I’ve been contemplating the role of experts.
Before I discuss an expert’s role and importance, it’s perhaps useful to define the term “expert” and consider how experts emerge. I consider someone to be an expert if they possess advanced knowledge in a particular area or unique skills crucial to the functioning of a group. As the word “expert” is closely related to “experience,” an expert emerges once they’ve had experiences related to a certain knowledge domain or role. These experiences occur over time through certifications, advanced degrees, rigorous research or simply becoming a top performer in a particular field.
Experts have a responsibility to inform others. The most effective become teachers or mentors to pass on their knowledge to others who seek to eventually become experts themselves. Experts are less effective when they act in a condescending manner to make others feel more inferior, in essence talking down to those whom they should be trying to lift up. For those who have been reading my blog for several months, you know I’m a fan of “Star Wars.” My favorite character is Yoda because he possesses a deep knowledge, acts in an unassuming manner and mentors younger learners who seek his help. These behaviors are fictional exemplars of the role of an expert. An expert’s primary role, then, is to influence others in a positive way. However, an expert must always continue to learn in order to remain an expert.
In addition to continuous learning, experts have other responsibilities. Someone who possesses great knowledge or skill must develop ways to influence others in a positive manner. According to the French and Raven classic (1959), people become more influential when they are perceived as possessing multiple traits such as: being likable; offering something tangible needed by others; having authority to discipline others; having a formal title within a social group; and emphasizing how some specific knowledge, skill or ability they possess is of value in a particular context.
For those seeking to learn: find an expert in the area that you want to explore and listen to her or him. But be cautious – not all those who claim to be experts actually are. Just as there is a lot of misinformation passed off as “news” on various websites and media, there are some people who pose as experts but may not be. The challenge is that, with the ever-increasing capacity to post and access information on the internet, it is likely that many people turn to Google or their own personal social networks when in need of expert advice (Stillman & Stillman, 2017). Yet, such sources could be biased or contain inaccurate information. It’s important to always learn, and part of this is to also question (and understand) the limits of some information.
There is a caution to experts as well. There are many influential experts knowledgeable or skilled in particular areas. As an optimist, I believe that most of these individuals use their influence for the benefit of others. However, some individuals may use their influence to convince others of ideas not related to their areas of expertise. It would be silly for Yoda to try and teach Luke Skywalker how to fly a spaceship – that’s not Yoda’s strength! Likewise, it would be hazardous for an organizational behaviorist (such as myself) to try and teach physics without a deep knowledge of this area. As HR professionals can attest, it would be ineffective to hire someone into a role in which they do not have (or cannot develop) the necessary knowledge, skills or abilities. Similarly, when offering opinions in an authoritative manner, experts must reflectively ensure that these are in line with their areas of expertise. It is, therefore, crucial for experts to not extend their influence into domains in which they are not well versed. Thus, it is equally important for others not to blindly follow in areas in which influencers have limited experience.
Who are some of the experts in your field? Why do you trust them and what makes them influential? What are their limits? I am always happy to hear your thoughts! Write me below, email me at email@example.com, or connect with me on social media (www.facebook.com/urickmj and www.linkedin.com/pub/michael-urick/a3/775/5b/).
Michael J. Urick, M.B.A., M.S., Ph.D.
French, J. R., Raven, B., & Cartwright, D. (1959). The bases of social power. Classics of organization theory, 7.
Stillman, D. & Stillman, J. (2017). Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace. Harper Collins: New York, NY.