Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome

What happens when one person who is used to being the smartest person in the room has to work with another person who is used to being the smartest person in the room?  Or how about 3 or 4 of them?  I’ve worked for a lot of companies that would give anything to have this type of situation, but what about the unforeseen side effects of such a thing?  Sir Isaac Newton famously (and humbly) said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Would he have been as gracious if he had to go to staff meetings with those giants week after week?  Would he have been as quick to self-deprecate if he had to constantly defend his ideas to those giants? 

I’m sure you’ve know people like this.  Maybe you are one of them. Over the course of their lives, they have always emerged as the people that others turn to when they need things done.  They tend to be accustomed to having the best, fastest answer to any given problem.   I think the conditioning that happens to this sort of individual happens so subtly that they don’t even realize it’s happening.

So what’s the big deal?  My esteemed colleague (I told you I would give you credit, Steve) and I have been talking about this for some time.  Here are a few thoughts on the danger this presents to teams.

  1. Tunnel Vision – Every human being has an ego that tells them that their ideas are better than someone else’s.  Your ego in this has been fortified by your entire life’s experience in which your ideas were always the ones that were picked.  This can really negatively impact a group of people who are trying to solve a problem.
  2. Assumptions – You’re smart.  You know your teammates are smart.  Therefore, they must know the same things you do, right?  I think this leads to NOT exploring ideas and NOT talking through how you came to your conclusions.  Assuming in a team full of smart people can be lethal.
  3. Communication Gap – I suppose that communications is really at the heart of any team’s problems.  Any time you have more than one person working towards the same goal, communication becomes the glue that holds it all together.  I think smart people don’t sit and think, “I’m not going to communicate with that other person.”  I think more often it’s a combination of “We have daily/weekly/monthly status meetings to get us on the same page” along with some “I’m doing the WORK, I can stop and talk about it every five minutes”  with just a dash of “I figured it out, so should everyone else.”

I am fortunate to work with as many HIGHLY talented people as I do.  Every last one of them has some area(s) of absolute genius.  In spite of that (I suppose I’m arguing here because of that), we’ve fallen prey to some of these problems, mainly because we were unaware of this subtle cause.  But as GI Joe cartoons taught me when I was young, knowing is half the battle. 

One Reply to “Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome”

Comments are closed.