The Problem with Being an Expert

Alone on the EdgeWhat stops the Community Benefit Sector from achieving its potential to build a healthy, vibrant world? I know I ask that question a lot – it is the “B” side of the question that guides all our work at Creating the Future. (The “A” side of that question is, “What would it take for the sector to achieve its potential?”)

An answer that has consumed my focus lately is one that doesn’t receive a lot of discussion. I hope that will soon change.

It is the fact that in this sector, everyone is an expert. Or at least that’s what we expect to be.

Most organizations that put themselves out there as “solving a problem” consider themselves experts at their work – or if they don’t, they are soon encouraged to do so. Environmental experts and human service experts and historic preservation experts and music experts.

Then there are the funders and consultants and nonprofit resource centers – all vying for who is the smartest person in the room.

And of course, while board members are not experts at the mission, they are frequently recruited for other expertise.

Experts experts everywhere.

What conditions does that assumption of expertise create in this sector? Here’s just a bit of what we’ve found.

1) An expert has the answers, and therefore takes that posture. The expert gives advice, prescribes solutions.

2) The recipient of that advice may or may not want the advice, even if they have asked for it. (Have you ever noticed how often you yourself ask for advice and then bristle when it is given? Have you ever noticed how often someone will ask YOU for advice, and when you give it, they will argue with you about why it wouldn’t work for them? Have you ever noticed how often you say or think, “Well if you didn’t want my advice, why did you ask for it?”)

3) Each of us has wisdom and experience and ideas of our own, that can be tapped to create possibilities.

4) None of us likes someone else telling us what to do. Yes, even if we have asked them for it. Just because we have confessed our weakness (hard to do) and asked for help (hard to do) doesn’t mean we will be happy about the answer!

5) This sector’s modus operandi – experts upon experts – has unwittingly created a situation of pervasive defensiveness. Walls go up. Questions go unasked. Learning and possibility stop.  Rather than “all of us working together,” we unwittingly create “us” and “them.”

The end result of this Culture of Experts is that it becomes hard to learn, easy to fail, impossible to achieve the results our communities deserve. Operating in a Culture of Experts actually makes us more vulnerable to being whipsawed by circumstances, as we sometimes have more of a stake in being right than making a difference.

Success in the Community Benefit arena doesn’t come from being the smartest and the fastest and the best. Yes, you may become the best funded organization, or the consultant with the most clients. But success in the Community Benefit world is about – well – Community Benefit! And none of us can do that on our own.

It is clear that this sector’s potential can only be reached if we link arms together to create the healthy, vibrant communities we all want. To accomplish that, many of the systems we rely upon in this sector will need to shift, from competitive systems that keep us apart to systems that encourage and nurture interconnectedness and interdependence.

And I am beginning to wonder if the assumption of expertise isn’t one of the pre-conditions to changing those systems.

After all, our assumptions and expectations guide our actions, and our actions guide our results. Without a change in assumptions, systems will not change. With so many systems (fundraising, governance, planning, etc.) continually failing to create the change we all know is possible, how many of those failures are at least in part the result of experts believing they know best for others?

Which leads me to the bigger questions:

What would it take for us to give up this notion that we funders and consultants and organizations are smarter than those with whom we are working to effect change?

What would it take for us to rejoice in learning together as equals?

What would it take for “leaders” and “experts” to be those who bring out the leadership and expertise in everyone else?

And how might we change the systems we use for doing our work, to reflect that shared wisdom, that shared learning, that shared leadership?

19 thoughts on “The Problem with Being an Expert”

  1. I love where you are going with this Hildy. Are you familiar with Leadership Agility? This book by Josephs and Joiner defines a developmental model of leadership. EXPERT is the lowest level. Yes, the lowest. For very much the same reasons you point out. At the higher levels we are actually questioning our assumptions and listening more.

  2. I always love the questions you’re asking, Hildy, and the enlarging of perspective you invite. The whole idea that we are “changing” “something,” providing “solutions” to “problems” IS, in my own experience, what keeps us from envisioning limitless possibilities. (If we are only doing something in response to what we don’t like [to ‘change’], rather than choosing what it is we DO want to experience [to envision anew], are we always limiting our possibilities?)

    And how can we envision the fullest perspective, when only the “experts” are allowed to speak; when it is only the “experts” anyone will listen to? And if the “experts” aren’t into listening to others’ experiences and perspectives, what, exactly, are they “expert” in?

    And, as you point out – if our focus is COMMUNITY BENEFIT – what is the Benefit without Community input?

    What would it take to shift to a more beneficial approach towards leadership? It takes each individual to assess what “leadership” means to her/him. When we embrace the notion that leadership is recognizing and respecting that EVERYONE has a perspective that is important to them; when it becomes about encouraging everyone to bring their voice and vision to the table for the purpose of creating and growing what benefits the whole. It takes moving beyond the ideas of ‘competition against’ and ‘better than’, and getting everyone focusing on the most effective approaches to working together for the benefit of all. It takes us to stop seeing someone as weak or ineffective because they’re not bullying everyone around to move them in the direction that one person sees as ‘best’.

    When we, individually, make that internal shift in perspective, now we can create anew the systems that will support our new and expanding visions for/of community benefit; nurturing, fostering, growing those approaches you are pointing to.

    That’s my take. But then, I’m no expert…. 🙂

    Thanks for the thought-inspiring questions~

  3. Hey Hildy,

    This post is great timing for me. I am working with an organization I love and I have been suggesting to them that they claim their expertise. You have given me a better way to talk about this. They are a funder and have been very hesitant to say, “We’ve been at this for over 25 years and we have some ideas of what would help solve this problem.” I think this is in large part because they are not comfortable with the term ‘expert’. However, shared leadership is a core value of the organization. What I want to do now is encourage them to build that shared leadership in a larger scale and more purposefully. They do not have to be experts (and I think your article argues against it) but they can create more opportunities for people to learn and try together.
    Thanks for this helpful frame.

  4. Wow, you guys have me thinking – thank you so much for all this great stuff!

    Pearl, I will check out Josephs and Joiner’s work for certain. LOVING that expert is at the bottom of their ladder!

    Elizabeth, thank you so much for being here! One of the tag lines we use when we tell people what Creating the Future is all about (we are new and playing with tag lines…) is that we are moving this sector’s work from a focus on what’s wrong to a focus on what’s possible. So your words made me smile this morning, for certain!

    (As an aside, you may enjoy this 3-part post, complete with the video in Part 3: )

    Coming out of last week’s immersion course, this issue is even more front-and-center for me than it usually is (which is saying a lot!), so I’m looking forward to exploring how we can create this cultural shift. While one-off efforts are a start, moving our whole culture to a more cooperative “we only win if we all win” focus seems like a big piece of our own evolution.

    I would love to explore pre-conditions to changing systems – any systems – that we can move from more “me” systems to “us” systems. Thoughts?

  5. Zan:
    Talk about systems change – any talk of moving funders towards their immense power to learn together – well, wow and thank you!

    There are several posts here that may help in your discussion with the funder:
    Funding and Competition: (Be sure to link to the 11 Ways post that follows that one)
    Funding and Competition (Part 2) (Again, there are 11 Ways to try in the post that links at the bottom of that one as well).

    There are also several case studies with funders learning alongside their grantees in The Pollyanna Principles.

    I would love to know more about how the funder is changing how they are thinking. Anything you can share, or keeping us posted along the way, would all be greatly appreciated!

  6. Amen! I’ve never liked the word “expert” for many of the reasons you described. Experience yes, expertise perhaps, but where does the use of the concept expert take us? It’s one of many barriers that we put up that perpetuates the status quo and stands in the way of cooperative work. (It’s also a concept that ends up giving ‘consultants’ a bad name, but we won’t go there right now…). As we all know changing concepts and behaviors takes time but our word usage and the meanings we attach to them are an important part of bringing about that change. I’ve also been very encouraged by many of the ‘millennial’ generation I’ve been working with, and their approach to the status quo. Many of them don’t suffer fools (read “know it all” experts) gladly and are ready to challenge the paradigms to break about significant social change. A good sign for the future…My .02 for what they’re worth 🙂

  7. Hildy: Love what your doing and see little parts of me fully engaged but the expert side fights with the passionate and courageous person. Lately the passionate and courageous one is getting stronger thanks to reading great books like Pollyanna Principles. Thank you for standing for a better community and world.

  8. Bonnie and Scott:
    Thank you both!!! Language change and change of habits all start with change of perspective. When we change the way we see things, things change!

  9. Hildy,

    Super interesting post – thank you!

    In our work, we frequently encounter this dynamic when talking about volunteer engagement. Often, paid staff in organizations see themselves as “experts” in a particular field. They have years of experience, and are focused on leveraging that knowledge and expertise to create community benefit. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, it can also stand in the way of creating meaningful opportunities for all community members to be able to contribute their talent and skills to achieve the organization’s mission.

    Some of the most effective staff we work with now spend the majority of their time enabling other people to execute programs and projects, rather than doing it themselves. They are collaborators, engagers, connectors, networkers, co-conspirators, and enablers – rather than experts. It absolutely requires a completely different mind set and skill set than the “subject mattter expertise” that has traditionally been valued in not-for-profit organizations. And it reaps a completely different set of rewards!

  10. Wayne Gretzky, the hockey great, said his skill was that he “skates to where the puck will be, not where it is.” The only way Wayne could anticipate this was to see the whole rink, the whole playing field. I think of the community as the playing field. It is the role of the nonprofit to know its communities and understand its playing field. Then it can envision how its mission and values fit into that playing field and where it can best enable the community to achieve its vision or dreams. Thus, the ongoing vehicles for communication and interaction with all sectors of the community are essential. Too often, nonprofits and their boards can become insular when they see themselves as the experts. They are facilitators and catalysts that can be vehicles for the community achieving the community’s dreams or visions. Again, the key is to listen to the communities within the community. There is not just one voice but many voices. How do we facilitate nonprofits having this conversation, this dialogue? Yes, it is process based, but the end results are synergy of mission, vision and results for the community and the organization. In these days of scarcity mentality, how do we as consultants assist our colleagues in the funding community, our clients and colleagues to create these opportunities?

    I do believe there is a role for expertise–expertise in helping organizations sift through data to identify the important and the dreams and orienting them to listen. Margaret Wheatley is one of those who points to this as a key part of leadership.

    In addition, expertise is in asking the crucial and timely questions to prod groups and communities to move forward and not look backward, to look for solutions instead of problems, and finally to claim their power instead of minimizing their abilities.

  11. Yes, I completely agree with you, Hildy, that a world with peer to peer support is the ideal, and entirely possible, too. But I’m still not sure that expertise is a negative, although perhaps “being the expert” can be. 

    As a Board Chair myself, I have hired many consultants on behalf of the boards I served on, and was grateful both for the opportunity to learn from them, and – with the good ones – their support and encouragement to move forward with the knowledge they shared with us. The boards I served on needed consultants not only as facilitators, enablers, catalysts. We needed particular knowledge to help us come together to work from a vantage point of strength. Acknowledging that some people have this knowledge and can share it with others is not a bad thing at all.   

    But I think you’re talking about the kind of expertise that presumes someone is the expert who has all the answers. We all know just how this works because we all went to school for years, where our lives were framed by the idea that some (the teachers) knew all the answers and others (the students) had to acquire it. There is an inherent imbalance of power here. A newer pedagogical philosophy, one that will inevitably have to exist as technology takes down the fortress walls of schools, sees the teacher as a facilitator of learning rather than the “sage on the stage”, the lone expert.   

    I’ve seen that the kind of leadership that is equated with leaning on an expert, as in, “She’ll tell us what to do,” can work in an emergency, when a certain kind of expertise may be immediately necessary. But being told what to do is being led around. The kind of leadership that actually moves a mission forward is one in which everyone is learning and gaining expertise all the time, where shared knowledge creates an equalization of power and brings people together, where different strengths are counted on. We are all both students and teachers.

    There are some who have greater knowledge than others, and we pay them to share that knowledge. But I recognize that what you are saying is that we can’t accord “experts” greater power, let them do our work for us, or wait to let them tell us what to do. If “expert” means “the one who knows”, then I agree that such expertise works only if it shared in a way that makes all of us experts.


  12. Yes, I have been told by staff that certain work must be done by paid staff because they are experts and volunteers are, by definition to them, are not. I tend to mention Doctors Without Borders and ask them to consider who has the medical expertise there, but then I can be mean.

    Today, I believe I expertly guided a governance committee in making some structural choices – by offering a wider variety of options than they had thought to consider, and asking some Hildy-type questions. A contentious issue I had been told would take several meetings and verbal fisticuffs went away in about 20 minutes of pleasant conversation.

    I had not said “in my expert opinion you should …” at any time in the four hours, and hope I never do. I gave them freedom and some ideas. They developed their own answers and went away beaming. And decided the new board should spend a lot more time truly engaging its community (they defined its community more widely than I had thought to) because that’s where the expertise they will need is.

    FYI, this is a transition group preparing to incorporate soon. Many of its members could see others as business competitors rather than as people they would want to collaborate with, but they are choosing a higher road. Some have been on many boards and some none.

  13. Sometimes an expert asks the right question and then shuts up:)

    Often thats all that’s needed for the question-ee to figure out for themselves what the expert was hoping they’d deduce.

    And sometimes, it simply gives the question-ee “permission” to consider that previously considered unreachable, ridiculous, etc.

  14. I would like to dissect the meaning of expert in terms of the knowledge base being discussed. For example, if one is an expert at eye surgery, at hair cutting, at excel (a set of skills that are set and learned) where one dedicates time and energy to learn all the ins and outs of it, it is my opinion that they are an EXPERT. On the other hand, if someone is a therapist or a facilitator or a consultant then I absolutely agree and feel that collaboration is the only way to achieve mutually valuable results. It is also extremely important how one approaches the conversation, whether they are considered expert or not. To me, it’s in how you say it and how you present your expertise to the audience. If things are presented as choices, as opinions and ideas versus “you should do this” than it is my view that you are just a ‘know it all’ versus utilizing the expertise to explore the best solutions for a given situation. It is also my view that we are all experts at ourselves and that alone leads to a collaborative effort and not a competitive one.

  15. First, wow. You guys are BRILLIANT! Just reading through your responses is stretching my brain. Love it!

    I’m thinking about the difference between narrow technical expertise and considering oneself an “expert” in a broader sense. Do I want someone with technical expertise operating on my heart or lungs? Uh – yes. But does that make that person more of an “expert” about the best treatment for me than I am?

    I am recalling the interview I did with Brett McNaught from BuildOn, where Brett talked about BuildOn’s technical expertise as just one piece in the puzzle of making a project work.

    Which comes back to the cultural change this sector may want to consider more directly – and which you all are suggesting in various ways in your comments. Perhaps we can envision a Community Benefit Sector where instead of each of us being venerated for our expertise, we are each venerated for our ability to draw the wisdom out of others?

    Just some Friday afternoon noodling, as you guys really have me thinking!!

  16. Hildy, you and your conversation buddies always have been priceless to me but this in particular is something that has been on my mind a lot.

    I’m working with an organization that has been faced for some time with “experts” but where the efforts of said experts have not been producing the kind of outcomes that you’d expect from an expert. STILL it is hard for people to question the nature of the expertise!

    The very best moments are when we see the wisdom of another ordinary person, I think. I was at a listening session the other night in my county, and heard so many amazing, wise thoughts, from people not getting big grants or leading huge staffs.

    Sometimes it seems to me as if the $$$ are heading in one direction while people’s hearts and true wishes head totally in the opposite direction. What to do to get them in synch? Gotta find the way.

  17. This post by Saundra Schimmelpfennig brought me right back to this question again:

    It’s about an Autism Awareness campaign that backfired when people who actually have autism rebelled against the approach the organization was taking. My tweet to Saundra about her post noted that “So much comes down to “Orgs as experts” vs Orgs as 1 among many resources used by the REAL experts – real ppl living real life.”

    The last paragraph of Linda’s comment (right above this one) is precisely what is described in Saundra’s post. I hope you’ll check it out and share your thoughts.

  18. Hildy,

    Excellent article. I am going to ‘save’ this one. In the ministry, I serve to levels of constituents. The user / victim are in the front line. I want these folks see me as a “sign-post pointing the way.”

    The other group is the pastor / church who are self-admitted neophytes (ignorant) to the problems we address. To these folks, they call me an expert. For now, this seems to be a safe place to be.

  19. Hildy, I’ve come to this discussion after most have probably moved on to something else, but thought I’d add my “expertise”.

    I wish these forums allowed graphics and pictures. We might be able to create greater shared understanding.

    If I were using pictures I might draw a line with point A at one end and point B at the other, with an arrow pointing to Point B. That would imply that we’re trying to get somewhere.

    To do that some of us need resources (volunteers, dollars, ideas, technology, and others have these resources to offer. What makes the non profit work many of us do so frustrating is the cost of acquiring the resources we need to get to point B. Most of the resource providers can’t provide their expertise freely, and many make it very difficult to get their resources. This is compounded by the number who seek the same resources from the same people.

    In my visualization of A to B, imagine a bell curve, with a large balloon in the middle. This is the group I’d call “consultants, donor advisers, fund raising experts, etc.” A consultant told me about a year ago that “she’d be out of business if people just read the information that was available to them.”

    So consultants get paid to help people who provide resources or need resources absorb all of the information they need to know to compete for the resources it takes to get to point B.

    To answer your question though, what if the people in the middle spend 10% of their time putting their expertise to work to actively connect resource providers with non profits in their community.

    If the experts are so good at what they offer, they will always be more skilled at fund raising, marketing, communications, network building, etc than 100% of the constantly changing staff/board members of most of the nation’s non profits.

    If just 10% of the experts devoted their skills to connecting resource providers to resource users more of us could more consistently get to point B, and further on in what it takes to impact our communities.

    I don’t think this would ever put the experts out of work. It would give them some more expertise to share.


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