Is your expertise recognized?

Being recognized as an expert is a struggle more people are facing. Everyone who is suffering from imposter syndrome is questioning their expertise. If you are an outsider, the only one that is different, the struggle is real.

Is your expertise recognized?

I’m back from the Irish wilderness. Fragments of this post have been swirling in my head while walking the cliffs, hitting the waves, and being annoyed by midges.

When I look at the research projects I worked on in the past a common aspect is that they are different. Of course, they are all somewhat related to the topic of people, and mostly also about learning. With every new project, I'm reading into a new field, trying to carve out a new niche for me, always trying to quickly having my expertise recognized.

Being recognized as an expert is a struggle more people are facing. Everyone who is suffering from imposter syndrome is questioning their expertise. If you are an outsider, the only one that is different, the struggle is real: Based on social identity theory, your expertise and input are unconsciously viewed as less credible and valuable by others in your team.

Expertise recognition is important for team performance. Tasks should be done by those who have the expertise to do it. Putting steps in place to help with correctly assessing team members’ expertise will help companies and individuals. Relying on asynchronous communication is one solution.

Key idea

  • What you communicate to others is used as a sign of your expertise
  • Asynchronous communication can create a fair(er) playing field for recognizing everyone’s expertise
  • Correctly recognizing the expertise of team members is important for team performance
  • Ask questions to different people to have your expertise recognized by a wider circle
  • If possible, use public or shared communication tools. This helps others see what your expertise is

What is asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is communication that does not happen in real-time. This means there is a time lag, a longer pause, between a message and the reply to the message. The communication happens at different times.

Asynchronous communication can be using text (e.g., Twist), audio (e.g., Yac), or video. The underlying feature is that there is not an instant reply to the original message. Of course, this definition could be made more complicated by including the company's norm about replying to messages: If someone mentions you, or your phone or desktop notifies you about the message, you could directly reply to the message. This reduces the time gap between the original message and the reply. Thus making communication seem more synchronous than asynchronous. However, today’s post does not focus on a company's communication norms.

The company Doist is a vocal proponent of asynchronous communication. Its CEO, Amir Salihefendic, says that advantages of asynchronous communication or asynchronous culture include:

  • timezones are not an issue
  • people learn to communicate better in writing, as whatever you write needs to be complete so that someone can reply
  • employees have the freedom to structure their day

Asynchronous communication is currently purposed to be good or even better for remote work as it allows people to not be online all the time. The idea is that it creates a better work-life balance and allows for deep work.

What are the proven benefits of asynchronous communication?

Based on different theories, asynchronous communication is thought to have the following benefits:

  • equalizing effect: If the communication is only text-based those with lower bandwidth will not be marginalized.
  • empowering effect: there is less social risk and lower social expectations when using text-based communication. People can be their authentic selves when contributing to discussions. This effect is less pronounced if team members know each other or in some other way can identify each other (e.g., real name, real photo).
  • free cognitive resources to focus solely on message construction. This is based on the hyperpersonal theory. As individuals do not have to process non-verbal cues, they can devote more cognitive resources to understand messages and create messages in line with one's self-representation.

The advantage of text-based asynchronous communication is the ease of use, the anonymity it offers, and the ability to think before you communicate. For remote companies, the third advantage is the most important. Asynchronous communication gives people the cognitive space to think about what the message means, how it relates to other work or non-work factors, and to craft a thoughtful response. It is exactly the lack of non-verbal communication cues that leads to higher quality asynchronous communication.

What is expertise recognition?

One feature of communication is to showcase your expertise. When you post a message you provide a signal to others. This signal tells your colleagues your strength and weaknesses. The value of communicating with your colleagues goes thus beyond what you are saying and helps you being established as an expert in an area. Of course, official presentations are one way of showcasing your expertise, but that's only a small part. Every time you send an email, ask a question or make a remark you signal what expertise you have, or do not have.

Expertise recognition is the degree to which the expertise your team members think you have is the one you have. Normally, when meeting a new person, people use surface features, for example, gender, age, ethnicity, or job role, to infer the expertise of the new person. Over time, by getting to know the person better, people judge their expertise more accurately (assuming this new person is being honest).

The ideal situation is a complete match between the expertise you have and the expertise your colleagues think you have. Of course, in reality, there is rarely a close match. Factors such as personal tendencies or cultural communication styles lead to the perceived expertise to be different than the actual expertise.

What influences expertise recognition?

There are two factors I like to point out that influence if expertise is correctly recognized by others: Asking questions and your culture.

Asking questions as a way to establish your expertise

It might seem counter-intuitive, but asking questions helps establish your area of expertise. You would think that by asking questions about how to complete your work, you only showcase what knowledge you do not have. But your lack of knowledge is only half of what you communicate.

Most people, when they ask a work-related question, begin by describing what they know. For example, how they tried to do a task. Once that is clarified, they describe the problem they are experiencing. This clarifies what they know and what they do not know.  Based on that, others can form an opinion about their expertise. In this way, individuals who ask more questions, and direct these questions to different people, are more likely to have their expertise recognized by a wider set of people.

The result just mentioned is based on a study of future leaders of a large financial service firm in the Midwestern United States. The employees communicated mainly face-to-face. However, they also used electronic communication tools (email, phone, instant messaging, wiki, blogs, shared file repository). The study showed that using communal communication technology (here wiki, blogs, and shared file repository) helped individuals to have their expertise recognized.

In today's world, communal communication technology would include Slack, Twist, MS Teams, GitLab, document storage solutions like Dropbox, Drive, Box, online whiteboard or design tools (e.g., Mural, Miro, Figma), project management tools (e.g., Asana, Todoist, Trello) and much more. By using these tools it is possible to signal to a lot of people at once what expertise you have.

Cultural communication styles

Another interesting study explained how asynchronous communication helps individuals correctly recognize the expertise of others by eliminating cultural differences in communication styles. In this way, it provides an equalizing effect. This effect is making people "equal" not in terms of their technological access, but in terms of their cultural norms of communication.

Thanks to the asynchronicity, certain aspects which makes some people seem less influential or knowledgeable, are eliminated. For example, people use the amount of time someone speaks about a topic, as an indicator of expertise. Someone who does not know a lot about a topic does not talk a lot about that topic (or should not talk a lot about the topic, unless it is asking questions).

Using stereotypical language, US Americans are described (also in Europe) as loud. Compare this to the communication style of Asians. Asians tend to be more attentive to social concerns and situational expectations, compared to people from Western cultures. This assumption is based on cultural differences derived from Hofstede's work on cultural dimensions. Of course, these dimensions are not without criticism, but they help to explain some differences between people from different ethnic backgrounds.

As a consequence, of these cultural different communication styles, Asian's participate less frequently in face-to-face communication. This makes them seem less competent and less influential compared to US American group members. Comparing face-to-face and asynchronous communication, differences in participation rates between US Americans and Chinese study participants were nearly absent in the asynchronous study setting. As a result of this, the expertise of the Chinese study participants was recognized. In the face-to-face setting, US Americans were seen as more influential and as having more expertise than the Chinese participants, because of their higher participation rate. The study was set up as an experiment so that the Chinese and US Americans had the same level of expertise.

What now?

There is a lot of discussion about remote work and the importance of face-to-face interaction for good collaboration. At the same time, some companies advocate for asynchronous communication as the way forward. Of course, there is value in real-time communication. The goal of this post is to highlight the value of asynchronous communication. Not every meeting needs to happen. Some things should better be discussed in an asynchronous way. For example a document with track changes and comments, a long thread, or maybe a series of emails or voice messages.

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