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The Specialist's Dilemma and Solution

Many of you are probably familiar with the "specialist's dilemma."  If not, it will quickly become intuitively apparent what that means.  It occurs when the more specialized you are and the more you speak in the jargon of that specialty that is comfortable to you but confounding to others, the more others will nod from the neck up (because it's often difficult for people who are prideful to admit they don't understand you), but then not fully “buy in” when you need their cooperation.  That is because they have to fully trust and have confidence in you (something that people rarely feel about anyone or anything beyond "death and taxes"), when they don’t have trust or confidence in their understanding of what exactly you do.

On the other hand if you depart from your jargon too much with those in your specialty you may dilute your "specialist" mantle and have people in your specialty see you as a "lightweight" (not unlike the way pure scientists view applied scientists).

The issue may be becoming more difficult because with technology and engineering and financial “know how” becoming much more sophisticated and intricate, one may need to become highly immersed in the language of a specialty to have high level conversations with others within it.

But when that occurs, the more hypertrophied one becomes in the language of their specialty, the greater the likelihood of having one’s language competence across silos and into another’s area atrophy or just never develop.

What's the solution?

In order to resolve this dilemma, you will need to learn to speak in a language they understand and that will more likely cause them to cooperate afterwards which I wrote about this in a CIO Magazine article entitled: “How to Avoid Bumping Heads Between It and Business Managers.”   Or, you will need to demonstrate humility and own up to not understanding the other person and furthermore ask for assistance.

An example of how that occurred was when I was called in to do a training for an offsite of a middle market security camera business.  Present at that meeting were approximately fifty people largely from operations and sales.

When I provide a training at such meetings, something I often do is tell the attendees that I am not trained in their technology, but as a former clinical psychiatrist and FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer I know something about communication, getting through to people and increasing cooperation.

I then hand out index cards and have them anonymously fill in what they would like to learn to do better in a three hour training with a person with my background and skills.

At this meeting, after ten minutes, I collected the cards. 

The people from sales wrote down such things as: “Selling more successfully to customers who are always sticker shopping on the Internet and squeezing us on margins,” “Handling angry or demeaning customers,” “Dealing with indecisive customers,” “Dealing with operations who is always coming up with some excuse why they can’t get us the products to sell in time,” “Dealing with calls from operations with some ridiculous request that slows us down,” etc.

The people from operations wrote down such things as: “Dealing with the sales people who are always impatient when we explain why we can’t do something they want,” “Dealing with other departments, when we need something from them that is annoying to them,” “Gaining the respect from the (sales background) CEO who believes the sales team walks on water and agrees with them that we are frustrating to deal with.”

I think you can imagine the tension that was building up in the room.

I put aside one very special card until the end, finished reading the other cards and then read that one which said: “The salespeople think the operations people are spineless and gutless; the operations people think the salespeople are rash and impulsive.  We’re all part of the same company, can’t we figure out a way to cooperate?”

The room went completely silent.

After fifteen seconds, a women from sales spoke out, “I’m in sales and I agree completely with that.  In fact I am sick and tired of our badmouthing operations when they are just trying to keep us from selling junk which could hurt everyone.  And I for one am not going to buy into that negative gossip!”

The room went silent again.

Then in the front row and rather quiet and almost timid man raised his hand and said, “I am from operations and I have never had a problem with sales.”

The room went silent still again.  It was reminiscent of the famous commercial, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

He then continued, “What I do is first know ahead of time, why I am calling who I am calling in sales and that what I am calling them for is important and is easily in their power to do.  I make sure that I don’t ask for more or less than that.  I then call that person and say, ‘Hi so and so, this is Bill, I need your help.’ And I always get cooperation and respect.”

The room went silent again (this apparently was a helpful routine each time it happened).

At that point, the CEO who was also present and observed this “sea change” of attitude said, “That’s exactly what we’re each and all going to commit to doing going forth.”

A month later, I checked in with the CEO how things were going and he told me that nearly all the antagonism was gone.  I asked him what happened to Bill, the person from operations who had raised his hand in the meeting.

The CEO told me that they had made him head of culture (their company was too small to create another C-level position).

When I asked the CEO about other developments he shared an additional way to “cross silos” effectively.

He told me, “We have realized that an ounce of anticipation is worth a ton of problems down the road when people start becoming reactive.  And we realized that different specialties beyond operations and sales, such as IT and finance and customer service all have their own languages and that because of that, conflicts are inevitable.  So now we have different departments say to each other, ‘Going forward, to work together most effectively and cooperatively what are specific things we should always do and never do when we communicate with you?’”

I asked him what has been the result of that. 

He replied, “It’s very interesting, people are using less jargon across departments.  It’s as if we’ve discovered how we used to talk before we all became so specialized.”

I smiled at him and said, “Very interesting, I just understood every word you said.”

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