Expertise vs Humility

September 11, 2012 by
Filed under: Leadership, Teamwork 

There is no shortage of steps you can take to demonstrate your expertise in the world. It starts with basic degrees and diplomas, then you can add letters after your name at grad school, get more letters with professional programs, and collect a pile of certificates from, well, pretty well anywhere.

For degree-granting institutions, that’s the process that is used to certify you have competence in a particular area of study. There is an implication that this competence will translate into value in the workplace. While the distinction between a high-quality piece of paper and what you can get from a Word template and certificate stock from Office Depot may be fuzzy, but you can bet that the profit margins are pretty good for the organizations that provide the certifications.

Certification of expertise is big business – but frankly, so what? A few years ago, I wrote about the distinction between certification and education, but this is something different.

I have collected data that suggests there is a mildly negative correlation between a higher number of professional designations on a team and performance of that team. In working with those teams where the data has come from, I have seen many instances where the PMP or MBA (or some other form of expert) comes in with the opinion that they know all they need to know. With that view, they will sometimes ignore the perspectives of others.

I can’t imagine a situation where it makes sense to ignore the perspectives of others, with their different skills, expertise and experience. It’s all counter to the argument that ‘we are always smarter than I’.

I’ve shown that data to a number of groups, including a couple of MBA classes over the years. While some have tended to diminish that message because it presents a view counter to what they have invested in, others get it.

The bottom line is that you should never lose your humility when it comes to working as part of a team. You may have a great deal of knowledge in a particular area, but that doesn’t mean you are impervious to learning from others.

In close to 15 years of running consultancies, one of the most effective person I’ve ever been able to deploy was a fellow that didn’t (at the time) have his high-school diploma. This, in a field of others with PMP’s, MBA’s and Ph.D’s, working in the context of the high-tech industry. His inter-personal skills enabled him to connect with others, and his humility allowed him to appreciate and leverage the contributions of others. Which, in turn, gave those others a stake in the solution. Everybody wins.

As one person at a client site recently recounted about this dichotomy so eloquently:

“That degree may have contributed to help you get your foot in the door, but at this point, we’re all on the same level. It’s how well you contribute to solving the problems we have today that matters, not the credentials that got you to where you are.”

Regardless of your depth of experience and credentials, it never makes sense to forget your humility in a team setting. – JB

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One Response to “Expertise vs Humility”

  1. Geoff on September 12th, 2012 9:47 am

    I keep getting reminded that it takes a tangible amount of naiveté to take a bite out of the impossible. “Geez, I didn’t know you COULDN’T do that!” Sometimes, us “experienced” types need to let go of structure and let pure emotion take over. Sometimes, but not always though, amazing things happen. It is those “sometimes” moments when breakthroughs happen.

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