Paul was a brilliant young engineer when he started in the IT network department of an international utility company. He soon became key in the team of network designers and when the department grew, he was elected team leader. By the age of 33, Paul was network manager with an undisputed reputation of network expertise. He worked very hard, but his team became frustrated. Paul was hardly available and he always knew better.
This is not an exception in organizations. The best individual contributors often emerge as the natural leaders in the group of experts. But their promotion to team leader often ends up in the classic double losing situation. You lose your best individual contributor and you don’t get the best manager. Even intensive skill training doesn’t always pay off. In our case, Paul received several people management courses, but his behavioral pattern didn’t change.
The religion of managers with expert mindsets: the truth exists
Paul developed one typical behavioral pattern as a leader: “laissez-faire”. He was afraid of relational issues and avoided touchy-feeling stuff, sticking as hard as he could to the tasks and technology.
This is only one out of four patterns that managers with expert mindsets develop. We plot them on two axes (cfr. Fig. 1). The first one determines their leadership style, which ranges from active micro-management to passive laissez- fair management. The second axe is their motivational continuum: ranging from fear to desire.
The second pattern is characterized by fear that leads to micro management. These managers are trapped in a paradox. They have a hard time with being the end-responsible and having to work with employees who they consider less good as themselves, but at the same time they are afraid that these employees become better than them if they are not on top of things. Because who are they if they are no longer the expert who knows it better? What is then their added value to the team?
Other managers with expert mindset actively micro manage out of love for the tasks of all their employees. They are just curious and want to know it all. In addition, they often have a very primal idea of what a good manager or boss is supposed to be: a person who has the answer to everything. That’s what leadership is all about to them.
A fourth category has a more complex concept of leadership and believes that leadership is not the responsibility of one person, but of the group. And hence everybody should be free to take the lead whenever they want. As a result they give their team lots of autonomy. It also the way they like to be treated. They forget, however, the management part and go overboard: their style turns into laisser-faire management.
The behaviours and emotions may be different, but the consequence is the same: these managers lack transparent and honest communication with their teams when defending management decisions from above. They often sugarcoat, simplify or deny these directives. The reason? They haven’t lost their expert religion. Experts strive for ‘the truth’ as Plato defined it. Consequently, they have a hard time accepting the world of competing truths in which managers’ live and have to make decisions and policies. For experts, not seeing this more complex world as something you can solve, feels like betraying the ideal they stand for and that brought them to their level of status by their employees.
“Losing my religion”
Leaders of experts are in high demand in flattening, highly specialized and complex organizations. We can’t do without them. But organizations continue to struggle hard with those leaders. Different solutions such as strict selection procedures or dual career ladders haven’t lived up to their promises. In selection, organisations keep chosing the “natural, emerging” leader and often, due to the war of talent, there isn’t even a choice. Offering experts equal pay as leaders doesn’t help either, as it often diminishes the motivation for experts to become supervisors. Other measures as, for example, assigning resource managers to pools of experts weakens the people burden of leaders of experts, but can at the same time reinforce the disempowering behaviors of the same leaders.
What is called for is identity work. Identity work means that experts have to get challenged in their assumptions and convictions about themselves. Provisional self images as a leader enables them to try out new behavior. Feedback guides them in further development of these new roles. Identity work implies periods of doubt and insecurity, takes time and needs an environment with psychological safety. Only in this way the expert will be able to develop a leader identity that enables him to dedicate his expertise to his people in an empowering way.