If you’re already a leader, do your people follow you through fear or respect? And if you’re aspiring to lead, how will you get the most out of your team?
The power of position, the power to punish, and the power to control information can be risky to wield. They push your team members into a position of weakness and can leave you looking autocratic and out of touch. Your team members will likely not enjoy being lorded over, and may even attempt to undermine you if you use your power simply as a show of strength.
Fortunately, there are three types of power that are much more positive: charismatic power referent power, and expert power. Of these, expert power has to be earned and requires a great deal of energy and focus to maintain. But it tends to be longer lasting than other forms of power and more rewarding as a result.
This article explores the steps that you can take to build your own expert power.
Defining Expert Power
You gain expert power when you show a high level of knowledge or a great level of skill that people around you see, need and want. They will likely come to you for advice and want to follow your lead.
Unlike power that depends on your formal position, expertise is personal to you. Anyone can possess it, no matter what their level or grade within their organization. You might be the sole member of a team who understands a particular software program, for instance, or the go-to person for industry knowledge.
Why Expert Power Matters
Expert power is a great asset to have.
It provides leaders with a robust power base from which they can manage people confidently. According to management professor Gary A. Yukl, expert power is more important than reward-based or coercive power in leading people effectively. If you have expert power, your team is likely to be more open to your efforts to guide them, and you’ll find it easier to motivate them to perform to their full potential.
Expert power can also help you to get noticed, which allows you to craft a higher-profile role. It can help you to build up your own personal brand, and increase your influence and reputation at work.
Expert power doesn’t just benefit you, either. Your expertise means that others will naturally look to you for direction. They will put their trust in you to make wise decisions and produce good results. At the same time, they’ll learn from your unique skills and experience when they work with you.
But remember that you will need to constantly develop those skills and knowledge to keep hold of that expert power.
How to Build Expert Power
Building expertise is no easy feat. It can be a time-consuming task, but, ultimately, it’s a worthwhile one. Research has shown that it can take at least a decade to build up expertise. Some argue that it takes as much as 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class at something, though others disagree. In fact, maintaining expert power is a lifelong commitment, so you will need to refresh and update your knowledge continuously if you wish to remain the go-to expert in your field.
How you build expertise will depend on the sector that you work in. Academic study will be necessary in some sectors, such as scientific research for example, while practical experience will be needed in others, such as real estate construction or journalism. Consider how your industry operates and identify existing experts whose lead you could follow.
Then, carve out an expert “niche” for yourself by seizing any opportunities that come your way to further expand and impart your knowledge, and use these to build up and show your skill. Use information gathering to solidify your role as an expert. This involves the collection of both background information, such as trends and facts, and specific task-related information, such as a risk assessment or a quality standard.
However, remember that it’s not enough just to build expertise. People have to recognize your skills and to acknowledge that they need what you have. You can achieve this by following these six key steps:
1. Promote an Image of Expertise
Perceived expertise is often associated with education and experience, so make sure that colleagues know about your formal education, work experience, and accomplishments.
You could display diplomas, licenses and awards in your office, or refer subtly to your prior education or experience at an appropriate moment. For example, “We had a similar problem when I was chief engineer at GE, and we found… ” Be careful, however, not to overplay this tactic, as it could backfire if people think that you are bragging.
Demonstrating your expertise can often be more effective than talking about it. Offer to mentor a co-worker or to write about your area of expertise in company newsletters or blogs, or on social media.
2. Maintain Credibility
Once you have established your expertise, it’s important to protect your position. It’s all too easy to lose credibility, so avoid making careless comments about subjects that you’re poorly informed on, and take care to distance yourself from projects that have a low likelihood of success.
3. Act Confidently and Decisively in a Crisis
People like a leader who knows how to direct them when there’s a problem. They’ll likely associate confident, firm leadership with expert knowledge. So, even if you’re unsure of the best way forward, try not to express doubts or appear confused. But best of all, be prepared for a crisis so that your confidence is well founded!
4. Keep Informed
Having a firm grasp of up-to-date facts and figures is essential if you want to build and maintain your expert power. It’s crucial to stay well informed about developments within your team and your organization, as well as within you wider industry.
Expand your professional network to include high-quality connections rather than collecting a large number of passing contacts. Take the time to read relevant books, articles, journals, and blog posts, and attend conferences and events. Do whatever it takes to keep your “finger on the pulse.”
5. Recognize People’s Concerns and Contributions
Being an expert means that people look to you for information and direction, but this doesn’t mean that your engagement with others is one-sided. Listen carefully to your colleagues’ concerns and make sure that you address their questions. Try holding learning or discussion groups with your team to exchange and expand your knowledge.
6. Avoid Threatening People’s Self-Esteem
Being an expert can create competition or conflict with the people who need to access your knowledge. Generally, people don’t like to have their status unfavorably compared with others’, particularly when the gap is large and obvious. They will likely be upset by an expert who acts in a superior way, and flaunts his or her expertise.
Avoid this pitfall by making sure that you demonstrate your expertise tactfully, and take care to guard against arrogance. Use Eldred’s Power Strategies to help you to avoid triggering any negative and damaging reactions from the rest of your team.
Sharing Your Expertise
Be generous with your knowledge, and seek out opportunities to help people to grow.
As others begin to recognize your unique, valuable expertise, they’ll naturally want to tap into it. Equally, you’ll spot opportunities to support them that they may not even be aware of. Your expert power can help to enable co-workers to develop their own skills, so that they can progress in their careers, as you have in yours.
Using your expertise in this way needn’t threaten your position. The more you invest in helping the people around you, the more your professional value will grow and the more powerful your position can become. You can also test your own skills, identify gaps in your knowledge, and continue to learn by growing and engaging with this development network.
When sharing knowledge, use your common sense and avoid giving out any information that is commercially sensitive or that could breach confidentiality.
You gain expert power when people perceive that you have a superior level of knowledge or a specialized skill that they need. It’s a crucial element of effective management, but it’s not limited to leaders – anyone can have expert power.
You can build up your expertise by taking the time to expand your skills and knowledge. Promote your position as an expert by developing the right image, maintaining your credibility, and acting confidently in crisis situations.
Keep up-to-date with new developments in your expert subject, but avoid threatening your colleagues’ self-esteem. Instead, share your knowledge tactfully but generously, helping others to develop their own careers while continuing to learn yourself.
Apply This to Your Life
Think about a time when you had unique, specialist or rare knowledge or skills. Recall how you used your expert power. Were you sensitive about other people’s feelings? Did you maintain your power or feel it ebbing away? Consider what you might do differently next time.
Now look at what opportunities you have to develop expertise in your current role. For example, are there any conferences, blogs or forums you could access or contribute to? Are there any new projects in the pipeline that you could take the lead on? Could you become your team’s resident expert on developments in your industry, or do you have a practical skill you could teach your colleagues?