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Expert power: How to use it for good (not evil) in a changing world

January 27, 2022 - 17 min read

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What is expert power?

Why does expert power matter?

How to build your expert power

The drawbacks of expert power

Ways to share your expert power

They say knowledge is power, and that’s certainly the case with expert power. 

Expert power is a type of power that comes as a result of having deep, expert knowledge on a subject. If you know a lot about something, especially if you have developed expertise in the field, you can influence and inform those who know less than you about that subject. 

Expert power can make you indispensable to your team. It can also help them work more effectively and maybe even be more productive.

Expert power has some pitfalls, too. It can give you tunnel vision. If you rely too much on your "expert" status instead of listening to others, learning, and staying on your edge, you can quickly become irrelevant.

In a fast-changing world, power that comes from being an "expert" is less valuable than your ability to influence based on continuously evolving your expertise. 

Let’s take a deep dive into what expert power is, why it matters, and how you can cultivate your expert power to become a better leader and empower your team.

What is expert power?

While there are several types of power, they are divided into two main categories: positional power and personal power.

Positional power can be issued through positions and titles. Personal power is internal and unique to each person. It is not dependent on a role or title.

Expert power is a type of personal power, which means anyone can cultivate it regardless of their position.

These forms of power are often confused. Expert power comes from knowledge or expertise, but position often serves as a proxy for expertise. In some organizations, people tend to assign expert power to people in certain positions.

Having expert power can help you access positions of authority within your organization. It can also increase your executive presence, which helps you position yourself as a leader.

Expert power is one of the five types of power that psychologists John R. P. French and Bertram Raven identified in 1959. The other four are:

  • Legitimate power: the power that comes from a title or position, such as CEO.
  • Reward power: belongs to those with the ability to motivate others through rewards.
  • Referent power: a type of personal power that comes from having charisma and great interpersonal skills.
  • Coercive power: the use of threats to force people to do things — even if they don’t want to. This is one of the least effective forms of power.

Example of expert power

Anyone can have expert power, regardless of their role within a company. Even someone in an entry-level position can have expert power in the right situation. Consider the following example.

Sarah is a recent college graduate who has just landed her first job as a product designer. Sarah has been an LGBTQ+ activist since she was in her teens and continues to campaign in her spare time.

Within a few months of joining, the company asks Sarah to form part of a task force. The task force is working to make sure their products are inclusive and meet the needs of LGBTQ+ people. 

In spite of her junior position at the company, Sarah leverages expert power within the task force thanks to her background and knowledge of the LGBTQ+ community.

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Why does expert power matter?

Now that you know what expert power is, let’s take a look at five reasons why it matters.

1. It empowers your team

When you lead by example with expert power, it can motivate your team members to improve their own expert knowledge.

By modeling continuous learning and development, you inspire your team members to do the same. This empowers them to become experts in their own right.

Plus, sharing your expert knowledge with your team strengthens the expert power of the team as a whole.

2. It motivates your team members

Expert power is all about perception. People trust leaders who they perceive to have expert power because it makes them feel like they are in safe hands.

Following a trusted expert can motivate and inspire your team members. Knowing that you have the capacity to lead the team successfully and achieve its goals gives them confidence in their own abilities. 

3. It improves your decision-making

Expertise is a combination of theoretical knowledge and practical experience. 

The better you understand your sector and industry, as well as your own particular niche, the easier and quicker it will be for you to make decisions. Not only that, but people with expert power are more likely to make the right decisions for your business.

Making good decisions can save you time and help you avoid costly mistakes. It also positions you as a capable leader within your organization.

4. It can boost your career

Having specialized knowledge or a set of in-demand skills has obvious advantages for your career. If you continue to develop a specific skill set, over time, your colleagues and peers will begin to view you as an expert on that subject. 

This means that when they think of someone to receive a promotion in that area, your name is more likely to be on the list, thanks to your special skills. Qualifications gained as you’ve developed your expert power can also make you more competitive for new roles.

5. It contributes to your leadership development

Having expert knowledge can help you develop leadership skills in your field simply because you know what you need to do. 

Let’s say you’ve spent 10 years in different marketing roles. You’ve managed accounts, designed and implemented strategies, and created content. Thanks to your experience, you’ve gained expert knowledge that will help you step easily into a leadership role managing a content creation team.

How to build your expert power

If you’re ready to start building your expert power, here are seven tips that you can start implementing today.

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1. Practice, practice, practice

They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. To achieve that within 10 years, you would need to practice for three to four hours every day.

Schedule time for your daily practice — ideally, it should be at the same time every day. You might also want to set goals and give yourself rewards to help you stay motivated.

2. Be a lifelong student

A true expert never stops learning. Leverage self-directed learning, continue to take courses, and gain certifications throughout your career. Work with mentors and leaders in your specific area to benefit from their knowledge and experience. Read relevant books, journals, and blogs, or listen to podcasts by experts in your field. 

But don’t keep all your new knowledge to yourself — share it with both junior and senior colleagues. Doing so will benefit the company while helping to establish and maintain your expert status.

3. Be confident

Your expert knowledge is only one piece of the puzzle. The other part of wielding expert power is showing up to be perceived as an expert.

For people to perceive you as an expert, you must project the image of an expert. This means speaking confidently about your area of expertise. That doesn't mean being arrogant or thinking you have all the answers, though. Most fields are undergoing rapid change — true confidence is being willing to ask questions.

4. Maintain your credibility

Being an expert means having a lot of knowledge within a narrow field or niche. Having expert power depends on people’s perceptions of you. 

You might think that revealing gaps in your knowledge will undermine your power. But being blind to your gaps and not knowing how to learn from others will be far more damaging. To maintain your credibility as an expert, focus on talking about what you know and never pretend your knowledge is greater than it is. 

With this said, there is nothing wrong with not knowing an answer. Experts admit when they don’t know. The difference between an expert and a non-expert is that an expert will prioritize finding the answer or solution. You will find that your expertise can help you ask better questions of others and synthesize new information — once you stop focusing on being the one with the answers.

5. Stay cool under pressure

The ability to stay cool, calm, and collected under pressure is the hallmark of an expert. When you trust in your expertise, you can make timely decisions that lead to the best possible outcomes. This increases your expert power in the eyes of your colleagues.

6. Share your knowledge

Be generous with your expertise, and empower your team members through your knowledge. Ways to share your knowledge include: 

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7. Display your expertise

For some people, and some organizations, external symbols help solidify expert power. If you have certificates, diplomas, or any other qualification that reinforces your position as an expert, display them in your office for all to see. 

You can even use photos of yourself delivering an important speech or other evidence of your achievements. 

There is a caveat, though. While there’s nothing wrong with being proud of your achievements, avoid rubbing them in people’s faces, as this may come across as arrogant. Remember, there is a difference between arrogance versus confidence.

The drawbacks of expert power 

We’ve seen how expert power can empower your team and help you build your career. But it’s important to be aware of its potential pitfalls, too. Here are four of the main ones.

1. It can come across as condescending

There’s a fine line between sharing your expertise and talking down to colleagues. Be aware that people often object to unfavorable comparisons, especially if there’s a large gap between your knowledge and theirs.

So don’t be a know-it-all. Be open to diversity and the possibility that other people have different kinds of knowledge. All are equally valuable, and we can all learn from one another. 

2. It requires maintenance

For an expert, the learning never stops. A doctor who trained in the 1970s and then failed to update their knowledge as new science became available is still a doctor, but they are not an expert.

Another doctor who also trained in the 1970s but then went on to specialize in nutrition and gut health is likely an expert in their field.

3. It can limit your vision

As mentioned earlier, having expert power can help you make better decisions. The flip side is that it can make you too reliant on your own judgment and forget to consult your team.

The risk is that you might make some decisions that don’t take into account all of the necessary factors. If you’re an expert holding a leadership position, it’s important to stay open to the input and perspectives of your team members. 

4. It diminishes the more you use it

The more knowledge you share with your team, the more your expert power decreases because the gap between your knowledge and theirs becomes smaller.

Let’s say you’re the only person on your team who knows how to code — that makes you the coding expert. But if you teach your colleagues the basics of coding, you reduce the gap between your knowledge and theirs. At the same time, your expert power over them diminishes.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t share your knowledge, though. You can maintain your expert status by continuously acquiring more knowledge. Also, sharing your expertise with your colleagues can increase other types of personal power, such as referent power.

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Ways to share your expert power

Because expert power is all about perception, one of the best ways to use it is by sharing your expertise. This is a win-win as it helps you maintain your expert status while doing something positive for your team.

1. Empower your team members

When you see a colleague struggling, don’t just step in and do it for them. Use this opportunity to empower them by sharing your expert knowledge and guiding them through the task. 

This will help them increase their own expertise and motivate them to keep growing and developing in their career.

2. Celebrate the contributions of others

You may be the expert, but you can’t achieve anything without the contributions of your colleagues. 

Celebrating team members for their performance can encourage them to develop their own expertise.

3. Help colleagues develop their skills

Helping team members develop their skills can benefit your organization by addressing skills gaps.

Here are a few ways to share your expertise:

  • Advise junior colleagues on industry trends so that they know which areas to focus on
  • Train team members to help them build new skills
  • Start writing newsletters, blogs, or LinkedIn Pulse articles
  • Start your own YouTube channel or podcast

Empower your team through expert power 

By developing your expert power, you can set yourself up for a successful career in your field. But remember that an expert is a person who not only holds a lot of knowledge but who is generous in sharing that knowledge, too.

Experts know that empowering colleagues through their expertise can benefit both the team and the organization. People who share the same knowledge can work together more effectively and produce better results.

If you need support developing your expert power, contact BetterUp today. One of our expert coaches will be happy to help you.

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Published January 27, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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