Interdisciplinary teamwork: Expert and non-expert at the same time

By Annemarie Horn and Eduardo Urias

1. Annemarie Horn (biography)
2. Eduardo Urias (biography)

How do teams engage in interdisciplinary knowledge integration and how can they be supported in doing so? Why does simple sharing and questioning of knowledge not necessarily lead to interdisciplinary knowledge integration? And what does it mean to act as both an expert and a non-expert in interdisciplinary teamwork, and why is it hard?

In a five month course, we supervised a team of eight master students in the integration of insights and concepts from their individual, discipline-based projects into a joint work about circular economy. Based on our earlier research, described in our i2Insights contribution on four typical behaviours in interdisciplinary knowledge integration, we expected that if we helped the students to share their own knowledge and to engage with each other’s knowledge, that integration would emerge. We therefore had students prepare and give presentations about their individual projects, background, and conceptual underpinnings to share their knowledge. And we implemented activities in which students asked each other clarification questions in order to stimulate engagement with others’ knowledge.

But the outcome was mixed. On the one hand, the students became more inclined to share their own, and to engage with each other’s, knowledge. On the other hand, this often did not lead to an interactive conversation, a back and forth exchange between their knowledge bases. This made us aware that knowledge integration not only relies on whether collaborators share and engage with knowledge, but also which knowledge they share and engage with.

In interdisciplinary teamwork, collaborators hold expertise on some of the topics that are relevant to the joint work, but rely on the expertise of others for things that they themselves are not knowledgeable about. We thus argue that interdisciplinary teamwork requires of collaborators that they act as:

  • an expert – sharing knowledge, explaining concepts and methods, and indicating certainty levels – in relation to their specialism, and
  • a non-expert – asking questions, indicating not knowing, listening, trying to understand – in relation to the expertise of their teammates.

In collaboration they should dynamically navigate and switch between these two contrasting roles.

In our student team, we saw that this is not easy, however. We saw that some students leaned more heavily towards one role than to the other. When switching roles, we saw that they often did the opposite of what we expected or what we considered supportive of knowledge integration. We identified two patterns in their behaviors that illustrate that. We call those the conformative and the performative dynamics.

Conformative dynamic

We observed that the team often quickly gravitated towards agreement, and that this agreement was often not substantiated. For example, in defining concepts, the students did not explore and compare alternatives, but rather accepted the first suggestion that was made, without even raising other options. We termed this the conformative dynamic.

In terms of contributing knowledge, this meant that, rather than sharing expertise based on their own projects, students often shared general, widely-accepted and uncontested knowledge. And in terms of engaging with others’ knowledge, this meant that they did not ask critical questions and did not challenge others’ contributions. So you could say that they acted too little as an expert, and took on a non-expert stance in relation to their own as well as others’ knowledge.

Performative dynamic

On other occasions, we saw that students relied on non-expert knowledge as ‘expertise’. For instance, when contributing knowledge, they often did not tap into their own specialized knowledge, but rather shared insights from common sense or popular media. So they acted as an expert, about non-expert knowledge. In engaging with knowledge, they asked questions about things that they were already somewhat knowledgeable about. So instead of focusing on the topics of their not-knowing, they stayed close to what they already knew, preventing learning and integration. We termed this dynamic the performative dynamic.

Moving between expert and non-expert is hard

Surprisingly, we saw that although some students leaned more towards one set of behaviors than the other, conformative and performative tendencies were present in the same individuals. It was not the case that each individual student adopted either the role of expert or non-expert. Instead, they demonstrated expert and non-expert behaviors, but not necessarily at the most constructive moments and in relation to the ‘right’ knowledges. This demonstrated how challenging it is to unite those two roles and to dynamically navigate between them. We thus argue that this is something that requires training and support for students, and possibly also in other interdisciplinary teamwork contexts.

There were several factors that played a role in shaping the students’ behaviours. We were working with master students, so their grounding in their fields of training was still underway. Therefore, there were instances when they held limited expertise to bring to the teamwork and sometimes they lacked confidence in their knowledge, and in their awareness of their own knowledge.

Besides their personal competencies, there were also assumptions about teamwork at play. Students repeatedly expressed that they wanted to be a good teammate, which prevented disagreement (feeding the conformative dynamic) and which underpinned pressure to make contributions and show their worth (feeding the performative dynamic). Moreover, power imbalances and lack of psychological safety also affected the extent to which students generally felt comfortable in speaking up, or in sharing contested insights.


These findings provide lessons for those engaging in, facilitating, leading, and teaching interdisciplinary teamwork:

  • dynamically navigating and switching between the roles of expert and non-expert is essential for effective teamwork and is an important skill that should be explicitly targeted in training.
  • conformative and performative dynamics are a useful lens for recognizing team interactions that are hampering interdisciplinary knowledge integration and provide a starting point for intervention.
  • assumptions that teamwork is ideally characterized by agreement and that not-knowing makes one a weak teammate need to be challenged in training and collaboration.

Do our findings resonate with your experience? Are there other dynamics that you have identified? Have you developed techniques for overcoming these dynamics?

To find out more:

Horn, A., Urias, E., Klein, J. T., Hess, A. and Zweekhorst, M. B. M. (2023). Expert and non-expert at the same time: Knowledge integration processes and dynamics in interdisciplinary teamwork. Sustainability Science. (Online – open access) (DOI):

Biography: Annemarie Horn PhD is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Science in Society at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Her research is about inter- and transdisciplinary research and education, including knowledge integration and integrative methods, research policy for inter- and transdisciplinarity, and collaborative practices in large research consortia.

Biography: Eduardo Urias PhD is an assistant professor at the Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. His research focuses on the institutionalization of participatory and transdisciplinary approaches to research and education; inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge integration; and the drivers, dynamics, and implications of bottom-up initiatives in sustainability transitions.

14 thoughts on “Interdisciplinary teamwork: Expert and non-expert at the same time”

  1. Hi Annemarie and Eduardo! Thanks a lot for sharing your insights. Your experience concerning the non-expert role resonates with my observations in interdisciplinary teams. Especially junior researchers sometimes fear to ask „stupid questions“ about another person‘s field although asking basic questions about a different discipline is just natural and also necessary. However, I also see senior researchers sometimes having a hard time in engaging in an non-expert role i.e. letting go of their expert role they are so much used to.

    Concerning your first implication that navigating between the two requires training: do you have an idea how to do that in concrete terms? do you do such training in your courses?

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa! Interesting to hear that you recognize some of our findings and can also enrich them from your experiences with later career researchers! In our courses we have just started dipping our toes into what training could look like, in which we particularly focused on training the competencies that we in our earlier work (see link at the bottom) clustered into two categories that we coined “epistemic adaptability” and “epistemic stability”.

      One thing that we implemented in one of our courses is that we had students develop a learning goal in a behavioural change that they intended to make. In the reflections with individual students we reflected on their behaviours in the teamwork, including some of our interpretations, this could contribute to making them aware of patterns in their own behaviour or the team dynamics that may be a meaningful starting point for such a tweak in their behaviour. We had them translate that into a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) learning goal and to describe and experiment with a behavioural adaptation to work towards that goal, followed by a reflection on how that went. We saw that this could contribute to double (or even triple) loop learning and could thereby be a first step towards building those competencies. We have also published some of the practical materials that we used in doing so online, I’ll include the link to those practical tools at the bottom of this post for anyone who may be interested.

      Furthermore we adopted a ‘learning by doing’ approach, in which we aimed at facilitating fruitful teamwork, as a means to also learn about working in a team, collecting success experiences (and most likely also “failures”) and reflect on those collectively as well as individually. Facilitation approaches that we implemented to spark expert behaviours included project pitches, explaining concepts and frameworks to each other, and structured contribution of journal articles from their own fields. Targetting non-expert behaviours, we implemented structured rounds of clarification questions (and writing those down in advance, in order to prevent bandwagon effects), and giving examples of “basic” questions as teachers ourselves to normalize not-knowing and linking not-knowing to different knowledge bases and backgrounds rather than insufficient knowledge. We also saw that peer feedback and discussing disciplinary differences helped make them aware of their own and each other’s unique knowledge, which helped tapping into the relevant unique knowledge of different team members.

      I’d also be very curious to hear about your experiences, do you have any lessons learned from facilitation concerning those behaviours that may be helpful here?

      *the work on epistemic competencies (epistemic adaptability and epistemic stability) was covered in an earlier blog post here: and in the full research article here: Horn, A., Urias, E. &; Zweekhorst, M.B.M. Epistemic stability and epistemic adaptability: interdisciplinary knowledge integration competencies for complex sustainability issues. Sustain Sci 17, 1959–1976 (2022).
      **the tool that we used to support students in setting and working towards learning goals is openly accessible here:

  2. Thanks for this fine contribution Annemarie and Eduardo! What do you think is the influence of your teaching context on deciding on the dichotomy of “expert”/”non-expert”? In a design-oriented course for real-world problem solving, we chose to differentiate between “converging” and “diverging” stages of knowledge creation. During the diverging stages, the students all become “experts” in various lens through which to grasp the problem at hand and when they need to share information with one another, and they all become “non-experts” while questioning one another’s point of view and during the converging stage of integrating this knowledge in some way to create something useful to address the situation. We think this sequential role change between “expert” and “non-expert” roles allow all students to experience the responsibility, humility and critical reflection needed to create and use knowledge. I can imagine how, in a different course settings, that these different types of roles can be shifted to arrive at similar outcomes.

    • Thanks for this comment, BinBin! That’s an interesting line of reasoning that I hadn’t explicitly considered before, linking up to divergence and convergence. It makes a lot of sense to me that the balance between expert and non-expert behaviours shifts and fluctuates in a project. We, for instance, saw that in the beginning there was a high need for sharing some of their knowledges in order to be able to acquaint themselves with each other’s fields; expert behaviour was thus very important there, and a precondition to get the project moving, I would say. That being said, what struck me from our study was how powerful it was if the students navigated the two different types of behaviour dynamically on a more “micro” scale, so took on both roles within single interactions, as to nurture a dialogical interaction in which different people both brought ánd took knowledge as to bring their insights further. How does this relate to your experiences in the context of your course?

  3. Annemarie, thanks for replying. Clearly, you know what it takes to create safe space, and now I know that the safety you created (which I think is never a given) is the backdrop against which your study proceeded.

    My experience among more established professionals in U.S. federal government, where I spent 19 years until retiring in 2013, was that although more established professionals were more confident in what they knew, other factors such as perceived lack of psychological safety, learned helplessness, and complacency continued to keep many from engaging in “non-expert behaviours.” I.e., only the reasons changed – the behavior didn’t. The net effect was the same as what you discovered: In collaboration they *should* dynamically navigate and switch between the two contrasting roles, but it doesn’t occur easily.

    By contrast, the individuals who have responded to my invitations and have coalesced from various government agencies on their own time for three experimental projects lasting 6-12 months each, beginning in 2017 (link below) have engaged freely in “non-expert behaviours” during the course of each project, even to the extent of appearing on video for the first time, dreaming up business scripts for animated scenarios, and organizing & acting in recorded roleplays. Why? Here are my conclusions so far:

    1. There is no pressure at all coming from their day jobs – we’re in a separate, voluntary, leisurely space.
    2. As you’ve done, I’ve tried to create safety and be worthy of trust from day one.
    3. There are only three expectations:
    a-that we geographically dispersed participants will always show up at meetings with audio & video enabled,
    b-that everyone will encourage everyone else from a place of openmindedness and respect, and
    c-that each person possesses unique gifts that may not have been tapped at all – yet.

    If you want to explore this further, some past participants and I would enjoy talking with you by Zoom sometime! In any event, good luck in your research.

    Moderator: you can also read more in Kitty’s i2Insights contribution:
    How informal discussion groups can maintain long-term momentum by Kitty Wooley

    • That’s very interesting, Kitty, thank you for sharing! It is very interesting to hear your experiences with more experienced professionals, both in how you found similar dynamics that we did among students, and in the powerful ways to break them, very inspiring! The role of external pressures (e.g. day jobs, graded assigments, deadlines) really strikes me here and to me raises the question how we can also achieve such openness and ability to explore and experiment, and to engage in both expert and non-expert behaviours in more externally motivated contexts, and/ or (and maybe at least so relevant and powerful) rethink those external pressures.

    • That’s a very interesting and relevant question, Gabriele! Unfortunately we lost contact with the students after the end of the course – an unlucky side effect of conducting research in an educational context, and even more so just before graduation, when students’ university email addresses go offline – so we didn’t discussed our final conclusions with them (although that would be a very interesting thing to do, and something worth pursuing in the future!). Throughout the course we, however, did test our preliminary insights and analyses of the team dynamics with them, in checking, corroborating, potentially testing, enriching and deepening our insights. They recognized many (but not perse all!) things that we observed, and discussing it with them throughout the course also gave the opportunity to raise awareness and adjust behaviour on the fly; which we experienced as very valuable and helpful for both us and them! For instance, the observed dynamics and behaviours that we discussed with them in one-on-one interviews fed into learning goals and protocols that they defined for themselves in order to spark behavioural change. But also some unlocked potential, as said, so maybe I’ll go track them down! (an alumni study is high on my wishlist anyway!)

  4. Annemarie and Eduardo, I really appreciate the work you’re doing in this area. My former employment in large, bureaucratic organizations and my current experience convening after-work, ad hoc project teams drawn from the same organizations leads me to wonder how psychological safety (or self-confidence that renders safety less of an issue) factored into the situation. I’d be interested in your gut feelings as well as any research you’ve done.

    • This is wonderful and interesting stuff. I had a similar thought as Kitty re: how the employment and organisational settings might play a role. This research I published recently suggests that its definitely about good interactions within teams, but the broader organisational setting and context play a big role too (appreciative inquiry on “science thought leadership” in environmental regulation).

      • Stefan, that is very interesting work you shared, thank you! I think we can’t stress enough the importance of the context in which teamwork takes place, as it shapes how it unfolds. For our findings, this was specifically an educational context, which we saw to shape the students’ behaviour. For instance, the course had a set length, which put a hard and rigid deadline on the teamwork, they had to deliver a product that was graded that serves as an extrinsic motivator, and they had expectations and assumptions of what the role division between student and teacher entails. It would be very interesting to see how our findings relate to different contexts, and whether the notion of active as a “relative expert” may also apply to teams collaborating under very different circumstances!

    • Kitty and Stefan, thank you for your responses! What we saw and experienced in the team that we supervised and studied, is that psychological safety and familiarity with each other helped the students to speak up, test premature ideas, make suggestions, and indicate not-knowing. Indeed especially so if they were otherwise too insecure to do so. In the specific context of a student team, it makes sense that considering their early career stage the students often did not feel confident about their knowledge yet, find it challenging to take on the role of expert. Under those circumstances we saw that it was important to actively build a safe space and encourage them to share undeveloped ideas and uncertainties.

      I imagine that this is rather different in the contexts that the both of you descibe, concerning more established professionals, who are likely to be more grounded in their knowledge and may be more confident in order to speak up – I’m speculating here, obviously! My gut feeling, however, would be, that also in those circumstances (and potentially even more so, we are in an educational context to learn, after all), it may be difficult to engage in “non-expert behaviours”, such as indicating not-knowing, asking seemingly “stupid” questions, and indicating the boundaries of one’s knowledge. We saw that this is also a type of behaviour that may become less threatening when there is high psychological safety, in which team members feel like that they won’t be discredited as individuals or team members if they make a mistake, indicate what they don’t instead of what they do know, or ask a basic question. I imagine that this may be a challenge when teams are ad hoc, and history of collaboration from that same organization and political considerations may feature into this as well… Is this your experience as well, Kitty?

      • By the way, the focus of each of our three projects has been some aspect of boundary spanning as it relates to work. This has attracted participants at all stages of their careers, although most have been mid-career. One of the earliest contributors, who is now at the National Academy of Sciences, founded and led a Knowledge Lab that integrated disciplinary knowledge across the Defense Intelligence Agency for 5 years until his sponsoring leader retired. Our perspectives are complementary, as I focus on the knowledge integration an individual can do, regardless of what’s occurring at the institutional level.


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