Vertical Development: Feedback & The Expert Stage

Feb 21, 2024. By Lori Brewer Collins

A nautilus shell cross-section containing the spiral, organic geometric structure

Within the progression of vertical development there are several distinct stages (sometimes referred to as mindsets or worldviews) that describe how we relate to and navigate the world around us.

The Expert stage is the most prevalent within organizations. And with good reason: this is the stage where our professional acumen has really kicked in and where our demonstrable skills are on full display. It reflects our intentional accumulation of knowledge and expertise, and we have reached a point of tremendous skill, even mastery, in our chosen field. In this stage, we often have the reputation of being the “go to” person who can cut through and solve snarly problems. And, of course, we love it.

The limiter for us at this stage, however, is that our identities become overly attached to what we know, or what we think we know. This can blind us, or create resistance, to alternative perspectives or different ways of doing things. We may be the “go to” person, but we are also at risk of being a “know it all,” i.e., not just having the right answers related to our area of expertise, but thinking we’re qualified to have the last word on just about everything. In conversations, we become the knower. Even when presented with a new idea, or someone relates their own unique experience, as the Expert we are prone to evaluate and critique – to poke holes in what is being said. Someone’s unique experience is instantly compared against our own life and what they say is easily dismissed or over-taken with a one-upping story. In this stage, we are mostly in “tell” mode, wanting to prove how much we already know, perceiving conversation as a competition for who’s “right” or knows more.

This can be off-putting for those around us, of course. At its worst, we become known as an insensitive jerk that no one wants to approach. When that happens, we’ve cut ourselves off from people batting around ideas – ideas that could lead to collaborative innovations and stronger connections with colleagues.

Progression through this stage is helped by 1) recognizing this tendency in ourselves and then, 2) nurturing genuine curiosity for other points of view. It requires becoming a Learner – one who listens and asks questions to discover more. Learners invite alternative perspectives and data points that increase the chance for innovative problem solving and collaborative action. Over time, we learn to appreciate the talent and expertise of those around us without feeling a threat to our own expertise.

As a thought experiment, picture yourself in the Expert stage receiving feedback. What’s your natural reaction? (It’s probably not, “Feedback is a gift.”)

In our Expert stage, it’s likely we want to find ways to disprove the other person’s perspective as wrong. We’re likely to resist what’s being said and begin to defend our position. We’re pretty allergic to being “wrong” – and we’re especially allergic to having it pointed out to us.

We’ve all been there. It stings. And the main reason it stings is because it puts our expertise into question. Since expertise is our primary source of identity at this stage, i.e., we are what we know and are able to do, then feedback can be very threatening to our sense of self.

The exception to this is if feedback comes from someone we deeply respect or from someone we acknowledge has even more expertise than ourselves. These are the people we’re willing to listen to, especially if it’s something we’re interested in or they have information that adds to our body of knowledge.

If not, we’re likely to find ways to disregard or explain away the feedback.

The antidote to this, and to transition more fully into the next stage, is curiosity. Becoming genuinely curious is something we can nurture and develop. We can start by being genuinely curious and honest about our own response to feedback. How does it make you feel? What does it tend to look like? What is your usual response?

I bet there are some insightful nudges waiting for you in your answers.

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