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. Here are 6 techniques for dealing when your genius just gets in the way.

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, here is the trick: You can either be smart, or you can be effective.

You can be 100% right and 0% effective.

Remember, 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 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 favor 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.

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.

[Image: Flickr user Keith Loh]

Add New Comment

67 Comments

  • People don't get that everyone is smarter than you in something. Everyone has something that you don't have. Here, with this guy in the article is problem the communication. He doesn't know how to communicate what's on his mind and is impatient. He is not smarter than the rest of others. I'm not sure how one can be smart and not effective... But I guess this is a good article for those that think they smart but instead just arrogant.

  • Patty, I think you must be my soul mate because you understand me so well :) I agree that smarter people need to bring others along for the ride, but I think they either do not have the tools or allow frustration to cloud their judgment. And far too often, the stupid people are not actually dumb but just lazy (do the bare minimum & collect a paycheck), which makes the matter worse. I work with someone who is loved by everyone, loves process and is totally ineffective when it comes to business. On the other hand, when it comes to people, he could start a coup d'etat against the CEO single-handedly. I need to learn this skill from him! Thanks again.

  • Harry Seaward

    I've come to the conclusion, that I'd like a dimmer switch in my brain. I'm constantly annoyed with the petty nature of people and their lack of efficiency. If I could only be a mouth breather when i wanted to.

  • Kurt Hectic

    Hahahahahahahahahahahahaua. Doing what is right is what makes things more effective provided everyone respects your opinion, trusts your judgement, or can agree to let you have a go even if they don't agree with your opinion.

    No, pretending not to know what is right is not even near effective if you have to hold back just to please others. That is how most big outdated corporations operate, which is precisely why they are not number 1, like the Google and Apple of corporations.

    Being smart is more an issue of not being heart smart enough to realize you are not working with the right people to begin with or else you'd automatically curb your smarts and listen when you're with people you truly like to work with. Notice the word "like"? Yes, heart smart!!

  • Amelia Scrader

    People resent the fact that you know more than they do. That is just how humans are. That is why God is going to destroy most of humanity because of their little egos that get oh-so-easily offended.

  • kcm487

    Isn't intelligence relative to begin with? We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and seeing things past our own mind can be one of them. This article above reminds me more of an impatient and closed minded martyr than an intelligent person. Being open to new ideas and expanding your understanding of the world is definitely a form of intelligence.. Regurgitating facts with a good memory is another. Though a false compliment, like calling someone intelligent so they will listen, would be one way to break into to a closed mind and make them more open to suggestions...

  • kcm487

    Isn't intelligence relative? We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and seeing things past your own mind can be one of them. This article above reminds me more of an impatient and closed minded martyr than an intelligent person. Being open to new ideas and expanding your understanding of the world is definitely a form of intelligence.. Though a false compliment, like calling someone intelligent, would be one way to break into to a closed mind and make them more open to suggestions...

  • Rick Chance

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

    This is wrong. People think they are effective just because they are accomplishing something, but it isn't effective if you are accomplishing the wrong thing or doing it poorly. Often it would be better to do nothing at all than to do something stupid, as doing the something stupid can be destructive or counter-productive. So, you try to explain to people in clear, logical, non-condescending (though stupid people often think logic is condescending) terms what is flawed about their thought process. You get fired and they continue their not smart, not effective behavior. That is the circle of life.

  • Kishore

    I went to medical school at the age of 19 (a reasonable achievement by any measure) and I am practically an idiot compared to a lot of people that I have met. This isn't me trying to be humble. This is simply fact. I wish the rest of the human race could so easily notice the strengths in themselves and the strengths of others.... of course then we would all be from the planet Vulcan.

  • Kai Carriere-Richard

    My problem is that everyone (even the teachers) know that I'm the smartest person in the school, and I'm in 9th grade! But, I just don't wanna do my work. The real problem is that why should I do the work, if I already know all of it? Why should I learn history if they're all dead. Why should I know science if I really don't care. Why should I know English if I already know how to speak it. Why should I know Spanish or French if I already know a language (and its working pretty good). This is my real problem. My dad just doesn't know what to do with me, and I've been punished for 3 years, and I'm so used to it that I just don't care anymore, I'm a A student but I never had any "slack" to work with, so I stopped making decent grades and just quit. now I have a 2.5 and lower GPA. I need help.

  • Dawn Shin

    It sounds like you haven't yet found your passion in life, something that you know you want to pursue against all odds and in which you want to excel. It also sounds like you don't have great teachers that can link your passions to what you are learning. Unfortunately then you will have to discover these things on your own. Once you find your passion you will never want to stop learning about it. History repeats itself and maybe you can be the smart person to recognize it and prevent stupidity from happening again. Learning English can make you a more persuasive speaker and writer, so that you can lead or inspire others. There could be a subject in science that you actually love, but they only start teaching it at the college level. You need to find yourself a mentor, somebody smart that's doing what you want to be doing. Get yourself into college so you can discover your passions and become truly independent. Flunking school only limits your future and makes you dependent on others.

  • Dawn Shin

    It sounds like you haven't found your passion yet in life, something that you know you want to pursue against all odds and in which you want to excel. It also sounds like you don't have great teachers that can link your passions to what you are learning. Unfortunately then you will have to discover these things on your own. Once you find your passion you will never want to stop learning about it. History repeats itself and maybe you can be the smart person to prevent stupidity from happening again. Learning English can make you a more persuasive speaker and writer, so that you can lead or inspire others. There could be a subject in science that you actually love, but they only start teaching it at the college level. You need to find yourself a mentor, somebody smart that's doing what you want to be doing. Get yourself into college so you can discover your passions and become truly independent. Flunking school only limits your future and makes you dependent on others.

  • Kishore

    I graduated from medical school at 23 and immediately started saving lives. Sometimes I ask myself why I am doing this since everyone will eventually die anyway.

    What you are facing right now is the problem philosophers now call nihilism... why do ANYTHING at all since nothing seems to matter to me ... or matter at all. We will all die anyway so why bother to do anything at all...

    A broad based education allows you to prepare your mind for the day when something that matters to you arrives in your lap. You can't know you like chocolate unless you taste it. We discover who we are and what our subconscious likes simply by the experience of life.

    Your life or anyone's won't last too long so don't sweat it too much... Hopefully your life is a beautiful story and only you will ever know all of it.

  • Elijah

    This is a great article, for me the biggest problem was, I didn't know that I was really smart and I didn't understand that I was alienating my co-workers.  Many thought I was just arrogant or being falsely humble.  But I truly didn't know.  Now that I do I am having to learn how to handle many of the situations described in this article.  Thank you.

  • Kurt Hectic

    Your mistake is you're trying to please them by working with them. A bird doesn't try to please an ant by helping it accumulate food. It simple flies above it so the ant stays busy in its tiny world without bend offended. Of course, here's the kicker. If the bird did try to be humble and help the ant with food, the ant will get more food than ever and yet be more resentful than ever as well for not being able to fly like the bird. Fly! Just FLY!!!

  • RJ Suss

    Thing is, I start viewing what I'm doing as an "agenda", I lose more motivation. Because then I feel like I'm using people, as I have little to no emotional attachment to people who do me "favors"...because I have little to no experience with giving someone a chance to be "helpful" not ending in regret and self-loathing...because of how I get treated later on (like a tool, lol.) I don't want a job with inter-tool relationships :P

  • Originsux

    This article says 1 thing:
    If you are smarter than the rest, manipulate them.

    Give their moronic ideas the time of day, then bring them around to your way of thinking.

  • The Truth

    This article says 1 thing:
     If you are smarter than the rest, Manipulate and use them. 

    Be nice to them, give their moronic ideas the time of day, then let them down easy and get them to understand your way.