The Smartest Person in the Room

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The Smartest Person in the Room

“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”
— Albert Einstein

The Idea:  Adrian Ward pointed out an emerging problem in Scientific American. He stated that “on average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.” There is more blowhard, know-it-alls today than ever before.

“Know-it-alls” are disruptive, difficult to manage, struggling with both collaboration and feedback. They are often not team players.  They can be closed-minded, opinionated and view the world from only their perspective.  Simply stated, their insecurities and lack of self-awareness hinders and limits their effectiveness. Their perceived strength is a critical weakness.  It’s dysfunctional and growing to epidemic levels.

When you “one-up” or try too hard to impress, your actions depress creativity, fluidity and candor.  The need to be perceived as the smartest person in the room unleashes a backlash of avoidance, frustration and escape.  Think about it.  When another is taking up all the oxygen, it’s time to leave the room.

Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell puts it well: “Try never to be the smartest person in the room.  And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people…or find a different room.  In professional circles, it’s called networking.  In organizations, it’s called team building.  And in life it’s called family, friends and community.  We are all gifts to each other and my own growth as a leader has shown me again and again that the most rewarding experiences come from my relationships.”

So, what’s at risk if you are the culprit? For starters, you are only receiving a portion of the truth about yourself.  Others may not be lying, but they are not sharing so they are not giving you unfiltered, candid feedback.  This means you are operating blind; unequipped and not with the full support of your peers.  Another pitfall is you are not encouraging contrary views which are essential to your own growth.  To avoid this, one must learn to give others the floor, and not assume authority.  Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner remind us in their book Think Like a Freak that “Smart people love to make smart-sounding predictions, no matter how wrong they may turn out to be.”

The following are four other ideas to include in your leadership practice:

  1. Listen until it hurts. Commit to becoming a professional listener, asking thoughtful questions that you are genuinely curious to understand better.
  2. Allow other’s incomplete ideas to emerge and incubate within your group. Quit demanding ideas that are fully baked. Allow dots to connect organically.
  3. Ask questions that uncover motives, potential threats, or ideas that have failed in the past but can be resurrected with a twist.
  4. Quit losing people with complicated statements. Practice communicating your ideas in less than 30 seconds and then ask if the idea is clear.  We all lose ourselves listening to monologues.

In a recent Inc article by Will Yakowicz, we learn that talking about ourselves releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone.  Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist and author, argues that people gab too much because they become addicted to that pleasure of striving to impress others with their intelligence.  “But very smart people have the gift of explaining complex things in few words.”

Creativity comes from adding or subtracting to the process.   It never comes from monopolizing.
– Mack Elevation

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