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Why The Smartest Person Isn’t The Most Likely To Get The Job

Showing off how smart you are on your résumé could have a negative effect on recruiters. Attitude trumps IQ when it comes to success.

Why The Smartest Person Isn’t The Most Likely To Get The Job
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Genius. The word has an undeniable cachet and implies capability beyond the ordinary. The pursuit of genius or at least being the smartest person in the room continues to tantalize humans. Just look at the industries that have sprung up to accommodate the elusive quest for greater intelligence, from nutritional supplements to the $1.3 billion brain game software industry.

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Some psychologists believe that anyone can achieve genius, even though most of us have IQs squarely in the average range. Does this quest for exceptional intelligence translate to success in the workplace? More specifically, does genius status make you a shoo-in for a job?

Not necessarily, according to several recruiters and hiring managers weighing in on Quora. Indeed, a Mensa-level IQ–widely considered to be genius level by scoring anywhere from 132 to 140 on standard intelligence tests– when listed on a candidate’s résumé, has had the opposite effect.

For Patrick Mathieson, a VC with Toba Capital who reviewed 500 résumés last year serving as a corporate recruiter, listing Mensa membership isn’t the best way for candidates to show their intelligence. Instead, he writes, it serves another purpose.

Listing Mensa membership means that you did the following: decided that you want to be a part of Mensa; applied to Mensa; took and passed an intelligence test to get into the organization; then went back and listed it on your résumé. Each of the steps I just listed suggests a deliberate effort to get other people to believe that you’re a smart person. I’m not interested in hiring people who are overly concerned with how others perceive them. People who do a lot of posturing tend to have less success in group settings, in my experience.

Senior manager at Amazon Luxembourg and former Googler Richard Russell agrees that touting Mensa status is at best “a minor positive.” He believes:

In some workplaces, being a Mensa member may raise questions about cultural fit which would then need to be addressed, mainly about how socially well-adjusted the person is, and how well they would work with people who are (or who they perceive to be) significantly less intelligent then they are.

Of course, this is merely a stereotype, and one which may not be explicitly acknowledged, but it’s one which is worth being aware of, because where it does exist, it has an impact.

Dan Holliday, a veteran recruiter at Goodyear, has a visceral reaction when he sees Mensa on a résumé, which he estimates comes up at least once or twice per month.

I do not automatically throw the résumé into the shred container, but I’m oh so tempted. I try not to be judgmental, but on the one or two occasions that the résumé matched what I was looking for, I told the candidate directly, “It’s really not the time or place to mention Mensa. Just like listing your religion, age, or race, you do not need to mention your membership in an organization of geniuses.

Rather than focus on becoming the smartest person in the room (and then sticking your credentials on a résumé), Travis Bradberry, PhD, coauthor of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, suggests taking another approach.

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With training in both clinical and organizational psychology, Bradberry subscribes to the theory that attitude trumps IQ when it comes to success, and notes that a recent international study of more than 500 business leaders had the majority (78%) put personality above skills (39%) as a quality that made for an exceptional employee.

He also cites the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck’s early experiments with schoolchildren showed that success had less to do with native intelligence than their attitude toward failure.

She found that kids who were encouraged to see their failure to solve math problems simply as a matter of not trying hard enough, rather than not of being naturally good at the subject, eventually learned to keep going even when they made mistakes. The motivation was the challenge of solving the problem and learning despite setbacks. When the goal was merely performance–like a grade or an award–failure to solve a problem stung like a personal threat. The result was that these students shied away from subjects where they didn’t feel like they could shine. In their minds, their ability (even if they were smart) was unchangeable.

Translating this to the workplace, Bradberry says that people with a growth mindset always believe they can improve with effort.

They outperform those with a fixed mindset, even when they have a lower IQ, because they embrace challenges, treating them as opportunities to learn something new. People with a growth mindset welcome setbacks with open arms.

  

If you happen to be among the intellectual elite applying for a new job, Mathieson has a few words of advice. “There are much better ways to demonstrate intelligence than through membership in an intelligence society,” he writes. “Show me that you have used critical thinking to advance a project; show me that you [have emotional intelligence and] can work well with others.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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