It’s scary to make a suggestion or share a work sample on a social networking site or a list serv in an effort to help less expert colleagues. There’s a risk that an even-more-expert colleague will point out the flaws, or even make belittling comments. If they’re kind, the expert will do it in private. If not, there is the possibility of gossip behind one’s back, or public humiliation.
A colleague I deeply respect recently took that chance — not because he’s the world’s expert on a particular topic, but because he has a commitment to generously sharing what he does know for the benefit of others. His goal in sharing his work product was to upgrade the way a particular issue is usually handled across the country. That’s why I admire my colleague. He offered a very concrete work product for others to use if they would like.
Fear of humiliation and being incompetent lie one millimeter beneath my skin. That fear, which is pretty common among humans, runs rampant in physicians. It was intensified by our severe socialization during medical school and internship. I hesitate every time I put any of my own thoughts or work “out there” for all to see.
I’m not alone in having this fear of being upstaged by someone more expert. For example, a doctor recently unsubscribed from the ACOEM Work Fitness & Disability Section list-serv with this comment: “I joined the WFD section because I presumptuously (perhaps arrogantly) thought that given my decades of trying to navigate the rocky coastlines of fitness for duty and disability management I might actually have something of value to offer the newbies who might post questions. So I responded to couple of posts and …… Well, let me tell you, I may be a big fish expert in my insular little pond, but soon recognized that the WFD Section is replete with knowledgeable, articulate, and fluent experts. I really didn’t have much of anything new to offer. It was kind of like the experience of being at or near the top of your class in a suburban high school then getting into a competitive college in the big city where everyone is as smart as you or smarter. So you folks don’t need me; you’ve got it covered. And I’m not fishing for compliments or encouragement either (which you couldn’t offer anyway since you don’t know me), just keeping it real.”
Got any ideas for how to solve this cultural problem? I don’t — other than to point out these three aphorisms which seem relevant:
- “Don’t let the excellent drive out the good.”
- “You may need to lower your standards in order to improve your performance.”
- “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king”
Fear of sharing stifles collaboration and innovation — so it inhibits any community’s ability to upgrade its current prevailing level of quality — “what typically happens”. There’s something wonderful about people contributing what they DO KNOW. There’s something wrong about being made to feel bad if it turns out someone else is EVEN MORE expert or wise. So, perhaps we need to ponder, in the “land of the blind”:
— how a kind and respectful person with binocular vision (“the nation’s top expert at seeing”) should behave towards blind and the (rare) one-eyed people?
— how one-eyed people could best respond to input from the (very rare) binocular individuals?
— how blind people should differentiate between the (rare) one-eyed individuals and the (very rare) binocular people?
In the meanwhile, here is what happened with my colleague. I received feedback that there were some inadequacies in his work product. I sent that feedback along (anonymously by request) to him. I ended my email with this: “On behalf of all of those who are less well organized and systematic than you are, and for whom your tool provides a concrete model of what ‘good looks like’ — thank you for this contribution. And, please, if you have the time, use the feedback to go take it up a notch!”
His response: “I’m very open to discussions on ways to improve this document. I look forward to input of all sorts.” He also plans to teach a session on how to use the “new & improved version” at our professional development conference next year. THIS is the kind of professional behavior I DEEPLY ADMIRE.