When You're Smarter Than Your Boss

Smarty Smarty had a party. Nobody came but Mr. Smarty

Hey, Mr. Smarty. It's one thing to feel you are brighter than your boss. It's quite another to be wise enough to make that talent work for you.

If you are, in fact, brainier than the person you work for—and let's face it, this does happen—you have two problems: maintaining your alliance with your boss, of course. And you yourself.

The boss problem is obvious. Hardly any relationships are improved when one person lets the other know that he's not as smart. Your tricky task is to showcase your intellectual strengths as a comfort to your boss rather than allow yourself to become a threat. That's doable. You can pull it off, however, only if you are able to overcome your other problem, namely, yourself. How do you stop seeing your boss through your Mr. Smarty eyes and start observing his weaknesses and strengths clearly? You see, Mr. Smarty distorts and leaks. He can't be trusted.

Your "smarter than" assessment is probably grounded in some accurate observation. You likely do have some important cognitive abilities that far exceed your boss's. Perhaps you can grasp budgets immediately whereas he is numerically illiterate. Or you easily maintain the strategic big picture when she is apt to sink into the sea of parking space assignments and expense receipt inaccuracies. You are quick to grasp a point; he is ponderous and forgetful. You are, in all these and other ways, objectively "smarter" than your boss.

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Then your inner Mr. Smarty takes these facts and runs wild. After all, smart—in a boss or anyone else—is a complex phenomenon. Smart is sometimes the Bill Gates/Bill Clinton data-dump smart, of the knows-more, retains-more, breathtaking-command-of-information variety. But smart is also core values, hold-to-the-few-main-principles-and-let-the-wonks-work-out-the-kinks Ronald Reagan smart. Smart is Larry Ellison's death-defying digital imperialism and Martha Stewart's industrial-strength domestic vision. Who's to say which of these widely differing intellectual styles is "smart"?

Well, if you are working for one of them, or for anyone, really, you are the one to say. And if the Mr. Smarty in you is in charge, he's likely to focus on his own considerable powers and fail to recognize those with other abilities.

Feeling brighter than your boss simply because you are intellectually strong where he or she may not be is just one way we are prone to distorting the intellectual balance in our own favor. Overreacting to errors of judgment is another. We may take our own mistakes to heart, but some of us are apt to take a boss's mistake harder.

True, the boss's blind spot could affect the bottom line more, costing both of you a bonus—or even closing a plant. Under that rational trigger, however, may be the deeper discomfort some of us feel when a parent figure displays weakness. It's common to have a residue of longing for the protection and sound guidance of a powerful parent. We attach that old yearning to the bosses of our adulthood and are shaken when they fail to deliver on the old childhood wish. A boss's error thus creates more than a business problem.

The strong emotional reactions to any sign of a boss's weakness—whether it's an important error or merely day-to-day activity—make it too easy to conclude that one of you is smart enough to be running things and that one is probably not.

Then "I'm smarter than my boss and by God, maybe the wrong person is boss" morphs into the slippery slope of resistance to authority that makes work a misery for many otherwise intelligent people. If you've viewed authority figures as dictatorial fools or jerks since somewhere back in middle school, you are likely to ski down that slope into outright rebellion.

The boss assigns you A, B and C, and you promptly retreat to your cubicle, whip off X, Y and Z and await her applause and appreciation. When it doesn't come, you feel misunderstood and picked on. Again. And you wonder what you did to deserve another lousy, and not especially intelligent, boss.

Diminishing your boss's real strengths, overreacting to his errors and resisting or resenting his authority are self-inflicted career problems. In themselves they may be small day-to-day irritants. But they can add up to big-time job dissatisfaction. You do need to be learning something in your job. You do need to feel personally valued. When you distort your boss in a negative direction, you make both less likely.

At the end of the day, when you've muzzled your Mr. Smarty, take a clear analytic look upward. If your boss prevents you from using your exceptional gifts in the service of professional excellence, get out. Someone is waiting who will appreciate your talents. But if you are standing in your own way, be smart enough to step aside.

Make Your Smarts Work For You

Be more than the boss's workhorse:

  1. Never ever ever gossip about your dopey, incompetent, limited dullard of a supervisor.
  2. Make yourself useful to your boss by easing some of her burden. Identify her weaknesses, match them to your strengths and see where you can help.
  3. Leverage these extra contributions by asking for a tiny share of the public credit. Ask to do a small segment of his presentation, for the sake of your experience. Offer to lead the discussion of one agenda item, since you did all the analysis on the topic. Get the word on you out there.
  4. Identify and publicly compliment your boss on her strengths. This is not sucking up. This is creating an environment that makes it more natural for her to do the same for you: "George is so fast, he'll get that report finished in an hour. It would take most people here a week."
  5. Watch your vocabulary. Mr. Smarty has a way of needing to drop big words or fancy references. Interpersonally intelligent people use a light touch.
  6. Give your boss a menu of ways to compensate you for your extra effort. "Wouldn't it be great if we..." "I'd like to be included in the next..."

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