Don’t Be Blinded by Your Own Expertise

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Expertise sounds like an unqualified good in professional contexts. Companies associate it with high performance and leadership capability and seek it when hiring for key roles. But in studying top executives over the past decade, Dartmouth Professor Sydney Finkelstein came to understand that expertise can also severely impede performance, in two important ways.

Consider the case of Matthew Broderick, who led the Homeland Security Operations Center when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, in August 2005. A brigadier general with thirty-years’ experience running emergency operations, including a stint at the helm of the U.S. Marine Corps National Command Center, he seemed like the perfect person to oversee the response to the storm. “Been there, done that,” he said when describing his qualifications for the role.

Yet Broderick didn’t trigger key elements of the rescue-and-relief efforts until more than a day after Katrina hit. He underestimated the extent of the catastrophe with tragic consequences, owing in part to his expert mindset, which prevented him from appreciating that, adept as he was at handling crises in military contexts, he had little experience with natural disasters in the civilian realm. Trained to verify every fact, so as to avoid decisions made in the “fog of war,” he failed to recognize that in this case speed was more important. He relied too heavily on military intelligence instead of trusting local or state sources. And because of his extensive Marine Corps expertise, he assumed—wrongly—that key federal emergency officials would automatically report information up the chain of command. In short, he believed that his brilliance in one area would render him competent in another.

This type of overconfidence is one form of what Finkelstein calls the expertise trap. Another form is when leaders’ deep knowledge and experience leaves them incurious, blinkered, and vulnerable—even in their own fields. Consider these examples.

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