Wise Up

Companies hire smart people and turn them stupid, contributing to Thinking Deficiency Disorder.

In the past 20 years, I’ve worked for lots of companies and built five companies. In that time, I’ve watched and I’ve hired thousands of men and women and I’ve thought hard about how we work. And the conclusion I’ve come to now is this:


We hire smart people and turn them stupid.

Percy Barnevik, the esteemed CEO of ABB once estimated that, on average, employees bring only 5 – 10 percent of their skills into work. Only 5 – 10 percent.

The other 90 – 95 percent of their talent they leave at home.

When a study of over 1500 managers and employees asked how much of their brainpower they actually used at work, more than half said they used less than half of their abilities. The survey termed this situation Thinking Deficiency Disorder!

How does this happen?

It happens — at least in part because of the business cultures that we have built — cultures that specifically exclude Whole People. I first started to understand this when I worked with Steve. Steve was a salesman and this is how he described his previous job: “It’s like I’d drive into work, park the car and lock my True Self inside the car. Then I’d go into the office and be a corporate person. If I finished in time, I’d get back to the car, unlock it and reunite with my True Self as I drove home. But sometimes, I’d stay too late and by the time I got back to the car, my True Self had just passed out.”

Steve might not have found this way of working so painful if his two selves were closely related to each other. But they weren’t. They were dangerously far apart. At work, he was supposed to advocate independence, fast results, toughness. At home, he preached the importance of loyalty, long term commitment, selflessness and steadfastness. No wonder he was hurting.
Steve at work and Steve at home were two different people. Steve at work was using only part of himself. Perhaps just 5 to 10 percent.


To understand this, we have to look back in history – to the Industrial Revolution which was a moment, around the world, when life and work split: the man went out to work; the woman stayed at home. This bifurcation affected their relative areas of power and expertise. Men were supposed to accrue power, influence and wealth; to women they delegated responsibility for nurturing ethics, personal development, overseeing education. Those two aspects of himself that Steve talked about — the action oriented salesperson and the intuitive, empathetic family man — became split too. Division of labor was not just a manufacturing process: it was a social process, dividing intelligences, splitting ourselves.

And as men built the business world for themselves, by themselves, it became a very partial, simple, skewed, unilateralist kind of place. Business forms became very rigid: the office with its special, tough furniture. The cubicles. The jargon. The sharp suits. Values became rigid too. Business became a place that celebrated aggression, dominance, and crushing the competition. A place that became very lopsided in its values and its concerns. A place that, as it became more rigid, welcomed less and less of the human beings it employed.

5 to 10 percent

When women entered the workplace, their pain was like the dead canary in the mine: a clear warning that something was wrong. At first, it looked like this was just a structural problem, one easily solved with a few flex-time and job share programs. When those didn’t work, it was easy enough to blame women: they lacked ambition, weren’t tough enough, lacked the genetic make up for 80-hour weeks.

But recently, something new has developed that throws all of this into a different light. Far from leaving to bake cookies, many women are leaving traditional corporations to run their own companies. Forty-six percent of private businesses in the U.S. are now owned or controlled by women. And they’re doing staggeringly well: building jobs, profit and margins faster than business as a whole. And they’re doing this while raising their families. Women like Karla Diehl, whose Edison Automation just made it into the Inc.500. Women like Thermagon’s Carol Latham. Four hundred and twenty new businesses are being started by women in the U.S. every day.

Now, there are many, many reason why these women are so successful. But what’s so striking, when you start talking to women business owners, is the profound integration of their work life and their family life. Not just family businesses. But an integration of values. A treatment of employees as whole people. A treatment of customers as whole people — even, interestingly enough, as family and friends. In other words, as we search for an explanation to what makes this cohort of women SO successful — one common theme is that they do NOT obey the rigid rules about the separation of work from life. Far from it. They bring them joyously, creatively, productively together. The emotional intelligence developed and stretched at home turns out to be a huge asset at work. And the seamlessness between their work identity and their home identity keeps their intelligence intact, not split. They can bring their whole selves to work. They don’t really know how to do otherwise.

This isn’t just an issue for women. I’m struck by the fact that, nowadays, work/life conflicts are felt so painfully by men. They don’t want to be mean tough execs at work and lovey-dovey Dads at home. They want to be able to talk over dinner, about work they are proud of. They want to know their kids while they are still kids. They don’t want to miss the school play or the football game. Using and seeing the impact of the full range of their talents at home, they’re less and less willing to leave them behind when they go to the office. They want — like my salesman Steve — to be able to bring their whole selves to work, not lock it in the car. And, increasingly, they’re leaving the companies that don’t understand this.


I think that this is very good news for the businesses smart enough to understand it. Where does Thinking Deficiency Disorder come from? From the perception that only certain kinds of intelligence, skills and beliefs are relevant and welcome at work. That the rest must stay locked in the car. Where does good thinking come from? From the integration of every kind of intelligence, skill and belief that you have. From engaging the whole self, not the partial self.

We’ve fallen into bad habits, thinking about diversity purely as a woman’s issue, at best a way of saving money, at least a compliance problem. But the true value of diversity lies in the thinking it enables. Why do we do so much team work? Because a group of intelligences can conceptualize a problem in more ways and thus find more solutions. But that only works when the members of the group are different, are allowed to be different and bring the widest possible range of experience and skills to the table.

It’s long been understood that investing in people yields higher rewards than investing in technology. Imagine what might happen if, instead of bringing just 5 – 10 percent of our abilities to work, we doubled that….