You Can't Be Effective When You're Too Smart For Your Own Good

Congratulations, smartypants, you've got the highest IQ in the room -- too bad it'll make you a pain to work with. If you are one of these people, here is the trick: You can either be smart, or you can be effective.

Image via Aliaksei Lasevich (Shutterstock).

I have had the good fortune to work for, with, and coach many brilliant people. I have watched many of them struggle with being smarter and faster than everyone around them. Being the smartest one in the room is not easy. (Really.) Really smart people, who get to the answer before everyone else, get frustrated because:

  • No one gets why they are right, and they tired of explaining things all the time.
  • Everyone seems to WANT to go slower, and it is infuriating.
  • They resent having to make the effort of "bringing people along" -- it's not fair, and it's a waste of time.
  • They piss people off. Why do people get so upset when they're just stating facts?

If you are one of these people, or you have one of these people working for you, remember: You can either be smart, or you can be effective. You can be 100 per cent right and zero per cent effective. You can't do everything alone. At some point you need other people. You need them either to help you or to get out of your way!

So you have to be able to influence people. If you can't influence them, you will face roadblocks and fail to get others working on your agenda, and you will not be effective. If you want to be effective, you have to suck it up and bring people along with you -- even though it seems like a waste of time.

Here are some ideas for doing that. First, slow down even though it goes against every grain of your being. Then brace yourself, and try some of the following.

Include some of the annoying people: Don't just announce the answer. Go through the step of setting context and getting input. Don't always assume you know where the best ideas are going to come from. Develop the attitude that you can learn something from anyone. Practice being more curious. You will get some good ideas that surprise you. People like to be asked.

Listen even if you don't want to: In meetings, give others time to talk, and listen instead of arguing, or quickly shutting them down, or telling them why their idea is wrong or won't work. You may feel like you are wasting time, but you will win favour by listening. Even if you think their ideas are stupid, listening will pay off later when you need to get their support.

Don't be mean: I know it doesn't feel like you're being mean. You are not trying to be mean. You are trying to be straightforward, practical, share the answer, and make progress. In fact, one of the things that is so frustrating about these people is that they accuse you of being mean when you are not.

But they have the right to their perception. What they see may be your dismissing their inputs, ignoring them, or picking fights publicly. Be more gracious. Be more patient. Use more steps in your logic. Get smaller agreements along the way. Say thank you.

Keep your mouth shut: If you are in a room full of stupid people who annoy you, try the strategy of just shutting up. Speak later, with your actions, and make the right things happen. You don't need to show you are smarter than everyone along the way.

Make an effort to learn what their strengths are: Clearly these people don't share your strengths if they annoy you this much. Try to discover what their strengths are. You may be pleasantly surprised. Or not. But if you can get someone talking about what they are good at, and show some appreciation of that, you can more easily gain their support for your agenda.

Give them the benefit of the doubt: Keep in mind that these people might be brilliant in ways that you don't see -- in ways that you are not. What if someone in the room is really gifted at networking and connecting and getting others to get on board? Even if they never understand your project, and sometimes slow you down on the operational part, if you can win over that one person they can save you loads of time by bringing all the others along.

For example, what if the frustrating, ever-questioning numbers guy who is just not getting the big picture, has a relationship with the CFO that will get your idea funded if you can win him over?

Set your sights on effectiveness

OK. Even if you are in a room full of people who just can't keep up, you have a choice to make. Jump to the answer alone and face roadblocks, or make the effort to bring them along, so you can get the job done.

It's a choice you have. It may be frustrating in the moment, but the upside is that you will be getting more, and bigger, things done -- maybe not as fast as you want to go, but way better than not at all.

You Can't Be Effective When You're Too Smart for Your Own Good [Fast Company]

Patty Azzarello is the author of Rise: 3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, and Liking Your Life. Follow her @pattyazzarello.


    You could sub head this, "Meetings: Where Good Ideas Go to Die".

    ..and yet again the smart person has to make the concessions, adding to the gradual yet constant dumbing down of our society . You know the one where average and unexceptional people can get all of the breaks and 15 minutes of fame whilst the people who could actually further the human race are ignored because the vast majority couldn't be bothered trying to think for themselves for 5 minutes..
    I hate the fact that no-one in my work takes ownership and I have to shoulder the burden for months before management decide that I was in fact right months ago. Rinse. Repeat. Ad Infinitum.

      And its always the dumb people that seem to get promotions too because upper management don't see them as a threat to their jobs. While the smart people keep doing all the work down below on the ladder.

      *I know that this is not always true, but I have seen it quite a lot these days that it feels like the norm

      Whilst I understand your viewpoint there, it's basic advice on human relations. If you do find yourself always in the position of finding the answer before everyone else, they're going to be offended and feel like they are not valued if you just cut them off instead of bringing them on the journey with you.

      If this is something that you (metaphorical 'you' as in anyone, not you specifically) find too frustrating, a standard office environment may not be the best environment for you. Maybe a startup instead?

        And again the inconvenience goes to the person who should be supported.

        I guess my main point is that there should be more pressure on the average to excel than trying to dumb down the smarter performers... looking at the way most things in society are structured however we tend to reduce to the lowest common denominator - I'd rather raise the bar a bit and show people that they are in fact capable of performing and learning if they stop being pandered to.

      Guess what, princess, you're not going to be furthering the human race while you have such contempt for most of it.

      If you're smart, you're probably more adaptable than those of average intelligence. Find a way to adapt. (I don't know about your workplace, so I can't offer any advice, but I've just taken a bat to you so I expect you're probably not in the mood for listening to my advice.) If you've made yourself indispensable, as you claim, think about walking. There are companies out there who get out of the way of their employees.

    On the other hand, one might argue that dragging the others along with you (albeit kicking and screaming) may have the opposite effect on the "dumbing down of our society" and be contributing to their growth.

      True - but it's hard to keep doing that with a smile on your face when you become responsible for everything due to the inability of others... I write copious amounts of idiotproof process documents as part of a very large company - its frustrating to be bombarded with questions I have preempted and answered in the docs because someone is too dumb to read and follow along...


        Or constantly being the one asked for EVERYTHING because you're the only person in the company apparently capable of things like, say, sending an email.

          Or taking notes in a meeting... Even things of benefit like how much the pay increase is!

          You appear to be frustrated because you are the one who always gets the responsibility. How can you turn this around so that others wear the responsibility when things go wrong? Another thought, what do you need to do to change the culture so that the people who should take responsibility suffer when they don take it? You appear to be frustrated with the culture - you also appear to the one who could change it.

            I have tried changing the culture and being proactive in finding issues - the problem is in such a large company things move slowly and there is no change in management to help change the culture.
            Meanwhile I stay on the side (Operation Support Role) supporting all of the managers while they keep deferring to me and repeating past mistakes I already deemed fixed.

            A few years back, I was on a jury where I was the only person who took notes or asked questions of the judge. When we got to the deliberation room, no one could remember any of the facts or what points the judge said we should decide on. One guy actually couldn't understand what we were supposed to be voting on because he couldn't really speak English and just hadn't wanted to say anything. In the end I pretty much had to map the incident out on a white board and then lead everyone down the path to a conclusion, which I was increadibly uncomfortable with. What if I was wrong??? They just followed like puppies because they couldn't be bothered paying attention for 2 days. It was very not cool.

          I understand where you're coming from. I often felt like I'm shouldering the whole offices work load by my self. I was constantly asked the same questions over and over; so I decided to change my attitude and teaching style. Now every time some one comes to me with a question instead of just quickly showing them the specific part they asked about, I sit them down and help them with the whole process making sure they can do it start to finish before letting them move on. Although initially it takes some time to get going, after about a week or two I've reduced the amount of time I spend answering questions allowing me to get my work done faster.

          (Disclaimer: I am not the smartest guy in the room I but I was one of the nicest.)

    "None of us is as dumb as all of us"

    This seems to me more like advice to someone who THINKS they're the smartest on in the room- advice to gently chivvy them out of being a wanker.
    It's well delivered: compliment then gently critique. :)

    "You can either be smart, or you can be effective"

    It isn't possible to be both?

    Pick the important battles the ones that’s are worth fighting.

    Last edited 19/06/13 3:25 pm

      This isn't aimed at anybody in particular, but...

      If you're a smart person, why should people listen to you?

      Because you say so? Okaaaay...

      If you're a smart person who is annoyed at having to make "concessions" for less intelligent people, maybe you should learn better persuasion skills and develop influence. Or, perhaps you are not "socially" intelligent enough to figure out how to co-operate with others.

      Expecting things to go your way because you "think" you are the smartest, is naive.

        I didn't say I was the smart person I also didn't say I expect things to go my way. My point was you need to pick your battles even if you are right doesn't mean it is worth fighting.

        Last edited 19/06/13 3:48 pm

      If you speak as well as you write then I'd be annoyed too.

      *Whether, *learnt, *that.

      No, you're not the smartest.

        Ahh the old, miss the point pick on grammar/spelling argument. The call sign of a troll

          Replying to a 10 month old comment to rebut a grammar correction. The call sign of an insecure loser.

            Your quick reply to my reply clearly solidifies your point.

              Sorry, maybe I should've waited 10 months.

                I only just signed up yesterday and it managed to link old posts I did before I signed up and yeah I did have a spelling mistake. I read your comment a common troll reply and found it funny. So yeah 10month old maybe I shouldn't have bothered but it is amusing that your still trying to pursue the point, with your witty comebacks. So anyway good luck on your future trolls....

    Tesla, the smart person is dumbed down as the dumbed person is dragged up because we work best as a society not as individuals. If this was the case we'd all have to get up each day and farm our own wheat and then sit down at the end of the day and be smart. If you can't see that I doubt you are in the smart category and in actuality sit in the self absorbed one.

    As ajm says, this advice is only really relevant to meetings.
    Really smart people don't go to meeting.

    Once, there was the burden of responsibility, now, it is the burden of capability. The new standard office rewards the capable with additional work, makes them train new staff with no concession for their core responsibilities, tasks them with work which benefits the 'team' while they themselves strain under the load. Open-ended terminology in workplace employment letters have the best of the best wasting their days performing 'other duties as required' with no thought towards recognizing their efforts. Often the silent achievers, the capable line the pockets of the glory-boys and their managers with no form of recognition, while those who complain about their workloads take concessions and are cotton-wooled and rewarded. According to the 80:20 rule, the 20% carry the 80%, I've seen it in every workplace I've worked in. If you are the 20% (and you know who you are) try coasting a while, and see how the 80% start shitting themselves. Enjoy.

      I've tried this. Yes, it does all go to shit, but in my case, company productivity fell and it was everyone's problem. Hours were cut and pressure was raised.

      I eventually gave up and left.

    Just because you are the smartest one in the room doesn't necessarily make you always right. I have found that a lot of brilliant individuals are stubbornly blind and deaf to other's ideas even when those ideas are correct in that particular instance. Because you are brilliant and fed up with what you believe are "stupid people" your approach to a situation or problem can seem harsh, egotistical, overbearing, etc... where the people of average intelligence can help to balance it so as not to offend.

    Most people think 90% of the population are idiots, but they belong to the other 10%. Yes, I'm talking to you.

    Probably good advice this article. The biggest drawback though is the dumber you act, the dumber you become and any and all bright ideas you had go out the window as you expend all your energy on bringing the others along.

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