Why Being Smart is Over-Rated

When I work with an executive coaching client, I interview co-workers to get input into the person’s current leadership style. I start by asking about the person’s leadership strengths, and I’ll often hear some variation on the theme of “super-smart.” Whenever I hear this, I get ready for the other shoe to drop, and it usually does when I ask about the person’s leadership limits. Then I hear, “discounts other people’s points of view,” or, “can’t relate to people who aren’t as smart,” or “always has to parachute in and fix people’s work for them.”

We learn to over-value being smart. We learn the value of being smart early in life when our teachers and parents reward us, and this value lives on in our heads into our adulthood, well after the costs have overtaken the benefits. What are these costs and what are their implications for leadership?


The Costs Of “Smart”

Only see one right way – Smart people become very attached to their picture of a “right” or “best” answer. They don’t realize there are different “right” answers depending on one’s criteria. You may value completeness, but I value speed, so your complete solution won’t be best for me if it takes forever. People attached to their picture of right can’t effectively solve problems or negotiate goals in situations where others have their own interests. That limits the scope of their potential impact.

Become a bottleneck – Smart people get satisfaction from being known as smart, from being called in to fix the complex problems. So, it can be difficult for them to step back and think about how to use those opportunities to develop others’ capability to fix complex problems. They often become a bottleneck for those problems.

Have more blind spots – Smart people are worse at recognizing their own biases than are less-smart people, according to cognitive psychologists. The “bias blind spot” arises when people see thinking biases in other people, but have difficulty seeing those biases in themselves. This blind spot was found to be larger in people with higher cognitive sophistication. The interpretation these researchers made is that smarter people can spin more powerful arguments to support their wrong-headed views. For more detail on this research, see Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker post, and Tauriq Moosa’s great blog comment on these findings.

Resist learning – Smart people have a need to keep feeling smart. In a now-classic article, Chris Argyris said that smart people have a hard time learning, because they rarely fail, and when they do, they become defensive and blame external forces. Though the smart professionals Argyris studied said they valued learning, the values reflected in their behavior were different – to stay in control, to ‘win’ rather than ‘lose,’ to avoid negative feelings such as vulnerability and embarrassment, and to feel and appear rational.

Other Factors Are More Important To Success Than Smart-ness

It’s not just adults in whom smart-ness is over-valued. In his new book How Children Succeed, author Paul Tough reviews what psychologists and neuroscientists have learned about the factors that contribute to children’s success in life. Counter to prevailing assumptions, it’s not cognitive skills that make the most difference, but non-cognitive skills such as resilience, optimism, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, and self-confidence. Furthermore, these skills are best developed, not by a string of successes, but by failing and getting back up again.


How To Let Go Of Attachment To Your Smart-ness

If you’re a leader, how can you overcome the internal and external pressure to rely on your smart-ness?

  • When you’re called in to fix a tough problem, think about how you can use that situation to build the capability of the folks who called you in – so you don’t have to get called in the next time.
  • To replace the satisfaction you may have gotten from being the “hero,” consider the satisfaction you might receive from coaching other people to increase their ability to solve complex problems.
  • When you’re convinced you’re right about something, ask yourself what your criteria for right are, and ask yourself what some different criteria might be. Try to understand the validity of the viewpoint of the others you think are wrong or don’t “get it.”
  • When you can’t let go of your brilliant solution, consider the limits of your ability to have an impact if you’re the only person who loves your brilliant solution.
  • When something seems “obvious” to you, turn it on its head. What assumptions are you making that might not be valid? Look for feedback on your behavior and critiques of your positions.

What other strategies can you think of to counteract the dangers of smart-ness?

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