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How to dodge the ‘expertise trap’

Scarlett Hooft Graafland

Being an expert in your field is commonly prized as a desirable asset in a leader, alongside management skills and a good performance record. But, according to Sydney Finkelstein, writing for Harvard Business Review, overreliance on your expertise has the potential to seriously curb your business success.

Top executives who are overconfident in their abilities, and sure that the way they have always done things is right, can be “incurious, blinkered and vulnerable” in the face of new technology and fast-changing business dynamics.


Here are some pitfalls of what Finkelstein calls “the expertise trap”, which can lead to unhappiness, dissatisfaction and poor performance:

  • Having a restricted vision of business, both on a day-to-day basis and when troubleshooting.
  • Insisting on sticking to the “old ways”.
  • Not keeping up with new developments in your industry.
  • Failing to own your mistakes.
  • Considering yourself above the “lowly” workforce.
  • Discouraging input or challenge from colleagues.
  • Feeling out of touch.

Not only can this damaging mindset put overall performance at risk, but it can also threaten your own position as a leader.

Other clues that you are falling into the trap include focusing on the risk rather than the opportunity a new approach offers or feeling excluded from new forms of communication used by your teams – like Slack or texts rather than email.


If you spot the signs and want to break free from the “expertise trap”, Finkelstein’s solution is to adopt the Buddhist “beginner’s mind” philosophy and refocus on your own learning. It can be done, he says, even if you think you don’t have time.

What you need are some positive strategies, like these adopted by leaders he has encountered:

1) Resist being ego driven. Are you over reliant on the status your expertise has brought you? Do you try to look good at the expense of others, or the company? It’s time to get grounded and publicly acknowledge other people’s accomplishments. Maybe step out of your flashy office and really listen to your workforce instead of instructing them.

2) Challenge your deep-rooted ideas. Question your assumptions when dealing with familiar goals, like expanding into a new geographic market.

3) Actively seek to learn from your team. Encourage them to give feedback and share their ideas and opinions. Reflect on what you can glean from them.

4) Look for fresh talent. Choose people who are on a different page from you, culturally, functionally or industry-wise and tap into their ideas and experience.

5) Learn from someone you respect. Find a role model or someone to learn alongside and bounce ideas off.

6) Start experimenting. Let go of your comfort zone and banish limitations.

7) Challenge yourself creatively. Try hobbies outside of work that expand your vision.

8) Acknowledge your errors and what they can teach you. Give time and attention to what went wrong and why, and consider how to improve next time.

The riskiest element of the “expertise trap” is complacency. It’s possible to escape it and become a better leader by accepting the challenge to follow a path of constant listening and learning that is not defined by your expertise.

Source Article: Don't Be Blinded By Your Own Expertise
Author(s): Sydney Finkelstein