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]

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57 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • Isolated

    Yes, I often feel like I am the smartest person in the room -- or smartest people in my family. For MANY years, I tried to work actively against this feeling.  I wanted to be humble, I ignored or devalued my intellect, I tried to "play well in the sandbox." But ultimately -- now in my early 30s -- I realized that I wasn't doing anyone any favors by hiding my capabilities.  In the last few years, I feel like I have really been unleashing my potential, and that has won me a lot of success academically and professionally.  Socially ... this is a very different matter.  One thing this article didn't mention is how lonely and isolating it is to be the smartest person in the room.  Smart, fast people are human beings with emotions, too! The "dumb" people of the world seem to get along better; there are more of them out there, operating on the same g-d slow speed.  I imagine people will read this comment and roll their eyes.  But, this is my experience, and it has been intensifying lately.  I have had classmates in graduate school make passive agressive comments like, "it's unfair that we have different writing abilities; it makes those of us who don't write as well feel bad when we have to read really good papers." I wish I was making that up, but unfortunately, that's straight out of the mouths of students in a top ranked graduate program.  Some of those same classmates also gave me anonymous feedback that by *waiting* to talk during discussion (i.e. listening politely and not taking up too much space), I made them feel stupid, as if I was simply letting them air their stupid thoughts and then waited to pounce with all my good reasoning and rational thinking.  I started to feel like I was living on on island.  I struggle with how to process this kind of reception from other people.  Are they the idiots? Do I push back on this kind of thinking? Do I "dumb it down" and appease other people, simply to win friends and make coworkers feel better about themselves? I will say that I am a very savvy networker, and I think I'm skilled at "bringing people along" on the job.  But I'm feeling more disconnected from more people than ever, and it's disconcerting and sad.  It really, really is hard to be smarter and faster than everyone else.  Sometimes I wish I was just dull and average.

  • Lizz B!

    Hey - I know how you must feel! I feel the way you described...all...the...time. 

    I often find myself needing to numb my mind in order to get through the day or even the moment. If I let myself ponder too much, it can be really depressing. So, I stay busy at work, and when I get home, I busy my mind with media, and on the weekends, lately I've been busying myself with volunteering (with horses and kids, something I genuinely love). 

    I know most people will read this and think, "Oh, that's not so bad," but when you think about the utopia that *could* be if only you knew someone else who you could relate to on this intellectual level, it's pretty disheartening. When the choice is either think at a higher level (and spiral into depression cuz there's no one there to volley those thoughts with you and consider the things you can't see yourself) *or* numb your mind every time you find yourself with too much time on your hands and the temptation to ponder...it's just simply an unfortunate dilemma.

    I feel like I don't belong anywhere, sometimes I feel like the things I'm good at aren't right for anyone or useful for anything. There's times when I have to really work to remember why I'm still here. I have to remind myself that there's a core set of things in this world that I truly value and enjoy, that make me happy. Other times I have to remind myself of what I am -  without a doubt - good at, those few things that are "above" an outside perception of value. I come to those detours to cope because sometimes, it can be so overwhelming to fail in social interactions. When everyone else is so boss at social exchange and I just find myself falling flat on my face (publicly, no less).

    I've worked really hard to improve the social skills. I also try to never make the same mistake twice (if I can help it) so when I do (inevitably, cuz I'm human), it's really frustrating and depressing, and I feel really isolated, lonely and broken. I want so much to get past the "blind spots" in understanding how to improve social interactions, and I've been successful at this before, but some skills are harder to master than others.

    Anyway, you're not alone on an island. If you are, well then it's a pretty massive mf island - too big to realize the others who are there with you. There's people out there who feel this way too, I'm one of them. Hugs.

  • Isolated

    (And yes, I know there are grammatical errors and typos in my previous comment.  I'm not perfect, just fast!)

  • Kishore

    Culturally, in a world where texting is common, grammar is deteriorating but doesn't mean people are getting dumber.

    To me, the English language itself needs to be revised and simplified.

    Why on earth do we have the letter C and the letter K for example? Another point: pronunciation needs to be memorized for a significant portion of the English language. Why not just make the entire common language phonetic and save everyone a lot of grief. We could be learning something else. There is an opportunity cost to inefficient learning.

  • Michael_de_marco

    Great article and very insightful. I have a litany of problems in dealing with people who don't understand the concepts rapidly. To many interdependencies in the concept chain and they get confused. It is really tough to do what you are suggesting. It's about humility while maintaining self esteem. Not easy!

  • BAMNATION

    When I found this article, I was interested to read how I could be more effective. I am not the smartest guy in the room, but damn if I am not frustrated by those that think they are (and they might be but snooty about it) and those that are not and speak anyway.

    Sure we all can conrtibute and add value, but too many people are stuck within their own mindset and not willing to listen to other points of view or reason.

    With the work I do, I have to be prepared for today but also plan the strategy and goals for our future. This includes other areas impacted and all the deliverables across our firm to be on board.

    I have to think three steps ahead in order to make sure each group can be onboard and deliver. I am not a project manager, but to succeed I need to be aware and assess the changing dynamics of the economy, our clients and future growth of our business.

    Too often I am told I think too far ahead, yet more often I am correct in my assessment of the failure points and if addressed when raised would never had been an issue.

    I have learned over the last 20 years most of the points in the article and working abroad has helped in improving my communication skills with non-english speaking natives in English. But most of the issues I have had are with native English speaking people as they believe they know more and talk about items yet never can deliver.

    I have worked for poor managers (definitley not leaders) that promote themselves off of the work of others and won't promote others (like me) as they fear the competition. I left these firms and sure enough these maangers are fired for poor performance within a year of people like me leaving. I have been asked to return to a few of these places, but I know the senior managers are similar and all lack leadership. 

    I have always built my teams with people of broad experiences that have the mindset of team commitment. I can teach them the job, but not the right attitude. I teach my team about what we do and how it impacts the whole firm and how we are an integral part of the firms success. Like a coach, I outline the roadmap and point out the strengths of our team and where we need to improve individually to continue that success. When it is time for people to move on, it is always due to promotion or if no opportunity for promotion within to a higher position elsewhere.

    I didn't want this to be a rant, but I enjoyed the article and it strengthened motivation that I am doing the right things and have shared it with my current teams as well.

  • Danap9

    I just read the first paragraph.  Honestly, you have no idea what its really like. 

  • Ryan

    This is awesome. I needed an article that explained that yea, it's really really hard being smarter than everyone else, but yea, you have to not get frustrated, but listen to their inputs, understand their unique contributions, and have patience with their "slowness" in getting things like you get things. Awesome. I need to read this everyday. 

  • Psyphurr Lock

    Well, I am shocked.  I am not the smartest person in the room, not even close, but I have all of those bullet points down to a science. Former career military.  Dedicated, motivated, want to get the task done.  Was once told by a high ranking enlisted officer that if I end up stepping on peoples toes trying to get something done, its not that I am being insensitive, rather, the other person is not moving fast enough.  It is very difficult to break two decades of military approach to getting things done.  Yet here I am in the private sector and struggling to advance beyond mid-level management.

    Signed,

    Frustrated....

  • Kishore

    The military makes no apologies for discriminating based on intellect and ability... it wouldn't surprise me that civilian organizations are less discriminating.