Even Subject Matter Experts Need Feedback

by Jamie Resker | Posted | Learning

Even Subject Matter Experts Need Feedback

This post was written in collaboration with Michael Shipman, VP of Talent and Organizational Development at Rockland Trust.

Everyone needs feedback so they can continue to learn and grow.

But my colleague, Michael Shipman, VP Talent and Organizational Development at Rockland Trust, has noticed that the more proficient someone thinks they are, the less open they tend to be to feedback.

And most of us feel we're experts in some area or another. So the question is: as an expert, how do you maintain a learning mindset?

The expert mindset versus a learning mindset

We’ve noticed that many, if not all subject matter experts share the following characteristics:

  • We like to be consulted about our opinions.
  • We have a sense of pride about our deep topic knowledge.
  • We want to be recognized as the authority on our respective topics.
  • We tend to be less open to new points of view.
  • We’re most interested when we get a chance to share our expertise.

In many ways, the expert mindset can be the polar opposite of the learning mindset.

And since an expert sees him/herself as the “go-to person”, any feedback that doesn't fit their self-perception can be easy to dismiss.

How and why experts dismiss valuable feedback

Imagine for a moment you're an accomplished project manager working on a complex assignment that requires input and deliverables from colleagues across the business. If your colleagues fail to deliver, your project will stall and you'll be held accountable.

Now, fast forward to the completion deadline. You don't have the information you need and the project is going to be late. You're now at risk of being perceived as an ineffective project manager.

But this is your life's work and your resume is full of your accomplishments. In your eyes, you're a project management authority. Your track record proves this.

Yet despite your expertise, this project's deadline has come and gone, and you’re left explaining what happened to your boss.

Your boss doesn't look pleased and begins to give you feedback about your inability to manage projects. You struggle to listen because you’re thinking about all the ways your boss is wrong.

Your first reaction is often to think, "What gives? This doesn't describe me". You boil inside and say to yourself, "I'm going to set the record straight — right now".

The problem is, this stance isn't going to help you learn and become more effective in your role.

How to move from defensiveness to a learning mindset

It's normal to react defensively.

But it's important to take a deep breath, remove yourself from the situation if possible and allow some time to pass.

After you've cooled down there are two concrete actions you can take to help you move from defensiveness to a learning mindset:

Step 1: Reflect on the situation

Here are some questions that can help:

  • Is it possible that my expertise has blinded me to new information?
  • Is there something in this information that would benefit me?
  • What's next for me to learn?

Step 2: Seek insight from a trusted advisor

The best way to validate perplexing feedback is to talk with trusted advisors (e.g., colleagues, your manager, internal customers, etc.). Try asking:

  • If I were to ask you about my project management abilities, what's one thing I could do to be more even more effective in my role?

This is a powerful question because the answer will give you meaningful and specific insight.

How a learning mindset can look in action

If the project manager from our earlier example had taken this approach, she might have learned that the real issue had nothing to do with her formal project management expertise.

Instead the problem was with her failure to create meaningful working relationships. Because she didn't take the time to build relationships with the people she relied on, her colleagues didn't feel a strong sense of obligation or accountability to her.

With that realization in mind, our project manager was free to see how the feedback she'd been given made sense, and ask, “What's next for me to focus on?” The answer: find opportunities to start building relationships with colleagues across the organization.

Keep yourself open to learning opportunities and feedback

Adopting a learning mindset opens up new possibilities, even for an expert.

Continually ask yourself: "What's next for me to learn and apply?", "What's the one thing that would make me even more effective in my role?" Simply asking these questions puts you in a learning mode.

And don't dismiss feedback just because it doesn't fit with your perceptions. Dig deeper. You just have to be curious enough to find the one thing you could do differently to improve your effectiveness.

Learning and applying new insights is a lifelong pursuit. Making the unknown known offers the greatest professional and intellectual growth opportunities.

Your turn: How to you keep yourself open to learning opportunities and feedback that doesn’t seem to fit?

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