Team Building and Leadership Expertise is a challenge to define and understand. Everyone seems to be a thought leader, and all the noise and ideas are equal and valuable.

I am guilty of pushing lots of noise into the organization, team, and leadership development field.

While I try to ensure that what I share is evidence-based, current, and does as little harm as possible to the people who listen, the accountability and authority of a consultant, advisor, or expert are necessary for those on the receiving end of the advice to know.

When consulting executives on my areas of expertise (organization design and team development), we spend time upfront discussing with the executive team and those I support what their, my, and our shared authority and accountability is.

Often I use the cross-functional-role work of Elliott Jaques to begin the discussion:

In the advisory relationship, the person giving the advice (the advisor or expert) has the accountability and authority to:

  • take the initiative in approaching the advisee and presenting ideas or information that may be useful
  • take the time to explain to the advisee where and why the ideas may be useful
  • be kept informed about the activities and problems of the advisee

There are clear limitations to an advisor’s accountability and authority as follows:

  • If the advisee does not accept the expert’s advice, then the matter must rest there as far as the advisor is concerned. The expert will proceed no further.
  • The advisor must not report the advisee’s reaction to their advice to any other person. It is for the advisees’ managers to judge how effectively subordinates use advisory resources.

I just read ‘The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols, and Nichols does an excellent job of explaining misconceptions about experts within any domain. The bold areas are Nichols’s work; the italics below are my thoughts.

Experts are not puppeteers. They cannot control when leaders take their advice.
  • The leader has the authority and accountability to take what is needed and act independently. The expert is not the decider. All the experts can do is offer their expertise and observe how the other person takes and uses that to make a decision.
Experts cannot control how leaders implement their advice.
  • Experts are self-aware of their knowledge and how they see and interpret what is shared. The person who benefits from the expert’s advice will filter and understand the information in their way. The expert cannot ensure that the information is understood and used in the intended detail. That is part of the problem with expertise; much of what is known and understood cannot be explained. When a person acts on expert advice, they do so in their frame of reference. 
No single expert guides a policy from conception through execution.
  • While the expert and the executive team may agree upon a course of action, it happens through people when the implementation happens. The implementors are often delegated pieces and were not part of the initial discussions. This means that the original intention, the end state, and how it is implemented differ. 
Experts cannot control how much of their advice leaders will take.
  • Experts offer advice, and leaders decide what to listen to. Often only pieces that confirm a bias are heard, and the uncomfortable or ambiguous parts are ignored. People listen to what they want to hear, and the expert is often blamed when the incomplete use of the leader’s advice yields poor results.
Experts can only offer alternatives. They cannot make choices about values. They can describe problems, but they cannot tell people what they should do about them, even when there is agreement on the nature of those challenges.
  • Experts provide expertise based on their area of knowledge, and they are to leave it at that. Deciding on a value-based decision is the accountability and authority of the person making the decision.

Understanding what boundaries of the expert’s input and what you have to listen to will help. Many disagreements within organizations and teams stem from unclear roles. The role of the expert is to offer advice and let you decide how best to act upon that information. Ultimately, the person who has to make the decision and be held to account for it has more pressure and will need to take the expert’s advice and use their knowledge and cognition to decide.

Experts offer alternatives They cannot make choices about values