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Too Smart for Your Own Good

How intelligent people can avoid being off-putting.

Key points

  • Intelligence brings with it the burden of how to express ideas without hurting others' self-esteem.
  • Ways to offer ideas without making people feel inferior include phrasing suggestions as questions and reconsidering when it's worth sharing.
  • Giving others credit, providing ideas in writing and recognizing that people are rarely brilliant in all domains can also help.
No author listed, no attribution required, PxHere, Public Domain
Source: No author listed, no attribution required, PxHere, Public Domain

Many people wish they were more intelligent, but I’ve had clients whose very intelligence hurts them. Here’s a composite example:

I can’t understand it. I make suggestion after suggestion that’s smarter than what other people propose and at best, an idea gets adopted and I get but the most obligatory thank you. Worse, I was passed over a number of times for promotion in favor of someone who I swear is less intelligent, hard working, and ethical. But what made me contact you is that my employer has actually let me go now, and it’s not the first time. Help!

Are you aware of the danger of giving advice? Most people claim to want input, claim that they try to hire people smarter than they are. But in fact, many if not most people are more motivated to preserve their self-esteem. Every time you offer an idea, you may well make them feel less than. Ironically, the better your idea, the more inferior they feel and thus the more likely to distance themselves from you in favor of people who make them feel better about themselves.

Tips for offering ideas without being off-putting

In an ideal world, people would, like a self-teaching computer, immediately adopt a better idea. But humans are not computers and if we care to work with people and not just with information and data, we must adapt. That means defaulting to:

  • Phrasing advice as a question and in a face-saving way, for example, “I’m wondering if an alternative approach might be X. What do you think?” And when they yes-but you, even if irrationally, the most you can usually do is to take one more crack at it, providing new information to justify a new decision. Again, it usually should be queried in a face-saving way, such as, “I can understand. What’s going through my head as a rationale for X is A. Any validity to that?”
  • Realizing that no matter how tactful, every time you offer an idea, especially one that one-ups someone else’s idea, you pay a price. Case-by-case, consciously decide when it’s worth that price.
  • Where possible, give someone else credit for at least part of the idea. Politicians and other leaders use a variant of that: "I couldn't have done it without my team."
  • Providing your ideas in writing. That gives recipients time to diffuse their defensiveness. It's particularly wise to put your idea in writing when you have an idea during a meeting. Offering it in the meeting risks turning off a number of people. Of course, occasionally share your idea but less is more. Decide whether a particular idea should be brought up in the meeting or afterward by writing to one or more participants.
  • When developing an idea, consider the people component: What stakeholder roadblocks need to be anticipated? The best technical solution can fail because people resist or don't understand why it's better.
  • It’s also possible that you’re not as smart, at least as across-the-board smart, as you think you are. For example, I’ve had clients who are brilliantly analytical but when it comes to influencing people, their ideas are, let’s just say, not as brilliant. Few people are brilliant in all domains. Case-by-case, perhaps based on your track record in that domain, decide whether to and how hard to push your idea.

The takeaway

Intelligence requires, well, intelligence, so your pearls are dispensed so they yield maximum benefit with minimum risk.

I read this aloud on YouTube

Update: A reader, Bart Anderson of Palo Alto, CA, emailed me these additional good suggestions:

  • Find strong points in other people and compliment them in a genuine way.
  • - Recognize when a group will never accept you, or it will take an inordinate amount of work. Find a different group.
  • - Work in a specialty in which you're not in competition with others.

My recent post discussed other keys to effective communication.

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