How to manage people who know more than you: 5 tips

If you hold a leadership role, chances are you're an expert in what you do. It may be hard to imagine someone without your experience doing your job. However, as careers advance, people are often promoted to new roles that include responsibilities outside of their expertise.

This is especially true in healthcare, where executives want to lead extremely bright minds and individuals who are extremely knowledageble and passionate about their work. Whether interacting with accomplished researchers, renowned physicians and surgeons or supremely influential and experienced nurses, healthcare executives face a tall order to motivate people with such large bases of knowledge.

What should leaders do when a subordinate asks them a question they can't answer, or do not even understand? How can you lead someone who knows more about their work than you?

Consider these five tips from the Harvard Business Review.

1. Resist the inclination to dive in and master the situation. Leaders who are experts in one area often believe their core strengths — high intelligence and strong work ethic — will allow them to master the information they need to know. They may be tempted to learn all of the details so they can become in expert in what they are leading. According to Harvard Business Review, this is a road to disaster.

If it took you 10 or 20 years to master your own specialty, it will be impossible to reach the same degree of expertise in something you just started. "Your staff, who know a lot more about their domain than you do, won’t respect you, your lack of confidence in the details will show when you talk to top management, and your attempt to work twice as hard as you already are will wear you down," according to Harvard Business Review.

Instead, a new leadership style is in order. Instead of "specialist management," which depends on expertise, adopt a "generalist style," which involves using basic leadership principles to handle most cases, and do your best to learn — at a realistic pace — as you go.

2. Shift your attention to relationships, not facts. One of the main distinctions between these two leadership styles is that the specialist leader focuses on facts, while the generalist leader focuses on relationships. "A specialist manager knows what to do; the generalist manager knows who to call," according to the report.

Instead of focusing on facts, try building relationships with your colleagues and subordinates. This includes spending a lot of time face-to-face getting to know them as individuals. Relationships are an important element of the generalist leadership style because you are constantly adapting your approach to fit the individual in the situation, and knowing how to do this is key.

3. Be valuable by enabling things to happen, not by doing the work yourself. When you are the expert in something, you make contributions by making decisions based on your knowledge. As a generalist, you can't make the same kind of contribution, but you can enable things to happen. One way to do this is by problem solving, and specifically by mediating conflicts among employees since those conflicts can inhibit their productivity and quality of their work. Another is to continually ask for feedback. If a team isn't delivering on their goals, hearing their perspective of the situation could help identify potential roadblocks and solutions.

4. Look for the big picture. Generalists keep their head up and look for the bigger picture, while specialists spend much of their time "heads-down, deep in concentration, plotting a detailed course on a map," according to Harvard Business Review.

To develop a generalist perspective, take the problem you're working on and see how it affects workers two levels below and two levels above you. While this may seem like a simple tactic, this exercise challenges you to think deeply and develop a perspective that will influence the way you make decisions and really impact the organization, according to the report.

5. Use your "executive presence" to inspire confidence in others. When delivering a presentation, experts are confident that the facts will speak for themselves. However, when you don't have all of the facts, leaders need to channel confidence from somewhere else. Generalist leaders use their "executive presence" to inspire confidence in others.

According to the Harvard Business Review, executive presence is a skill leaders develop over time, but something they can do is pay attention to the presence of other leaders they admire. Pay attention to how they dress, how they speak, how they stand, the calmness in their voice and how they connect to the audience through real emotions. It is important to note that these are not personality traits but skills.

"The specialist manager in you will want to pay attention to what they are saying, but the generalist should want to see how they are creating executive presence," according to the report.  

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