7 Ways To Win Over A Challenging Subject Matter Expert

How To Win Over A Challenging Subject Matter Expert

When designing a custom eLearning course, you know that getting the right information is critical. But Subject Matter Expert (SME) buy-in is even more critical to your training’s success – and in the end, key to whether or not you will have a happy and repeat customer in your portfolio.

When we encounter a Subject Matter Expert who isn’t engaged in the process, our first impulse is to work around the issue – and I could point you to many articles telling you how to do that. But let’s step back and look at the situation using practical psychology. When you work through the conflict instead of around it, you hone your people skills, and you just may win over your Subject Matter Expert and “get the information anyway.”

This isn’t an article about how to get the right information. Cathy Moore has most of that covered in her Action Mapping methodology. Sometimes, a Subject Matter Expert is just plain averse to change – sometimes overtly so, but other times the tension just sits below the surface, revealing itself in smaller ways: unenthusiastic about the program, unwilling to give you the information you need, unreceptive, maybe even argumentative.

When you have a Subject Matter Expert who behaves this way, stop and ask “Why?” Most of the time, a reluctant Subject Matter Expert is not deliberately trying to undermine your work. In fact, it usually has nothing to do with you at all.

What to do?  In these cases, you need to use several tools to engage. Simply put, though, you need to change minds…about eLearning, custom training, about their (changing) role, about you, about the entire project. Here are a few approaches:

  1. Remember the science of attraction
    Yes, it applies to business, too! You may be familiar with the principle that says we have about 30 seconds to make a good impression.  More research suggests you may not have even that long. Nalini Ambady of Tufts University videotaped 13 teachers and showed clips to a group of research participants. She then asked the group to rate how effective they thought the teachers would be in the actual classroom. The results? Even when Ambady shortened the clips to just six seconds, the study participants accurately matched the end-of-semester student evaluations. What this means is that you really have less than 10 seconds to make a good first impression. People like working with people they like. That’s pretty simple, but it’s true. If you are unlikeable, you had better be stellar at whatever you do and never, ever, make a mistake.
  2. WIIFM? (What’s In It For Me)
    Persuading Subject Matter Experts to buy-in to the program must be about them – about what drives them. You can then begin to shape the project and their roles in a way they will identify with and will ultimately benefit from. You are more likely to get the information you need from a Subject Matter Expert who believes in the program and wants to be part of the success.
  3. Tell them why.
    Always start communications with your why. Why are you asking for information…requesting to meet…presenting a change? When someone understands your reasons behind any communication, it opens up an opportunity to be empathetic to you. This doesn’t mean telling your Subject Matter Experts why the company wants the training changed, or even why you were assigned as the ISD. It’s about respecting them personally; letting them know every single time you contact them the reason behind it. Over time, this will solidify into an atmosphere of respect.
  4. Don’t try to be right.
    If you are the brain of the learning design, your Subject Matter Experts are the heart of the content and experience. It is important to respect that. It isn’t reasonable to think that you can make the Subject Matter Experts “feel” right all of the time. But never make them feel wrong. If your Subject Matter Expert feels disrespected or unaccepted even the slightest, you will undo your entire relationship. I have seen entire projects go down because of one slight.
  5. It’s always personal.
    Whoever said “It’s not personal, it’s just business” has it completely wrong. Because you are dealing with people. Always. If it’s anything, it’s personal. Subject Matter Experts are people. They have hopes, dreams, expectations.  So approach them that way. Use empathy.  Ask questions. Ease into talking about their experience – where they’ve been, what they’ve seen. Don’t talk about the project itself for the first 15 minutes. Listen. Really listen – without interruption.
  6. Listen to the intent, not the words.
    Not everyone is a great communicator. Misinterpreting something your Subject Matter Expert tells you is easy, and it can easily contribute to the deterioration of your relationship. One of the greatest lessons my mother taught me was to give people the benefit of the doubt. We get so caught up in the “he-said/she-said’s” that we lose sight of what was intended.
  7. Empathy requires humility. Manipulation requires arrogance.
    Remember that this is not manipulation. You want to look at the program from your perspective and your Subject Matter Expert’s in an honest way that puts their interests in front of your own. In one of my more severe cases, I knew that the new training would render my Subject Matter Expert obsolete. He was scared for his job (and rightfully so). At the outset, I was the enemy.  I was converting his sole reason for being at the company into an online course, essentially marginalizing him. I’d be disengaged, too…wouldn’t you? While there was nothing I could do about his future at the company, I could certainly empathize with his perspective. Over the first couple of weeks, I approached every conversation with that in mind, and then looked for opportunities where he could shine – telling his managers how integral his corporate history was, how he could help maintain the updates and even be part of more advanced one-on-one demonstration assessments. While I wish I could tell you he had a stellar future there, I can say that making him feel important, respecting his perspective, and highlighting what would be his legacy – along with other approaches – made him more willing to help me with the project.

How have you gained buy-in from a Subject Matter Expert who was initially completely averse to the project?