When you are discussing individual performance issues and the last phrase out of someone's mouth is always "Yeah, but (s)he's so intelligent," you have a problem.
For years I've watched clients try to figure out what to do with high potential, poor people-skills managers. Most of the companies I've worked with have invested huge amounts of time, money, coaching, and education in an effort to prompt behavioral change in some "exceedingly intelligent" people. Maybe you've seen the same things.
Do any of these look familiar?
Global Operations Director who hits all of the monetary goals but no one wants to work with him. They don't trust him because he withholds information and doesn't include other managers in decisions that impact how they do their work.
Brilliant Vice President of Finance who can't conduct
meetings, doesn't like to plan, and knows more ways to help the company
earn money on its money than its bankers do. Up for promotion for top
job. Really doesn't want it. People love working with him because they
learn from him. He wants to continue developing investment methods and
Director of Regulatory Compliance. No one explains new (regulated) products to the government better than this guy. So what's the problem? To the company it means the difference between a commercial product or nothing new to sell. His direct reports described their feelings toward him as "hate" (never a real good sign). They say he is a "bully," "condescending," and "has no patience with anyone he thinks is less intelligent than him." When offered the possibility of being a high-level individual contributor, the director said "No. I want to be a manager."
What are we seeing here?
It's actually easy to explain: we simply cannot believe that someone we see as "smart" could actually be so "stupid." What we're doing is responding to a single, outstanding talent or skill and ascribing other attributes to it that we think must certainly be there. We then look at academic credentials and technical performance and believe that, somehow, we must be wrong. (Otherwise why would we have hired the person and promoted them to this point--here it begins to become a little self-defensive but we don't realize it).
It's easy to make the mistake of believing that making great presentations, investments, operational decisions, or engineering breakthroughs is a sign of superior intelligence. And they might, in fact, indicate an outstanding ability to think and reason within given circumstances and topics. However, take a look at just a few definitions from those involved in intelligence testing and research over the years:
"The capacity to learn or to profit by experience."
"A global concept that involves an individual's ability to act purposefully, think rationally, and deal effectively with the environment."
"A person possesses intelligence insofar as he had learned, or can learn, to adjust himself to his environment."
(Colvin, cited in Sternberg, 1982, p.30)
Learn, adapt, adjust. None of our managers is either willing, able, or both. So we need to stop praising their "intelligence" and start recognizing an inability or unwillingness to adapt.
What to look for and what to do
If you are trying to manage situations similar to those above, here are some tips from experience:
1. When "intelligence" becomes a mantra after you've coached and counseled a person, you are stuck. Stop looking at where you would like them to be going in the company and start defining what they do well and where they are not developing.
2. When you've defined what they do well, talk with them honestly about where they'll fit best over the long run. Yes, they may not see it that way and leave.
3. When you find that 90% of your energy is spent trying to figure out or explain 10% of your workforce, stop. Look at what you want from performance; compare it with what you are getting; and avoid explaining away the gap. We've all done it. We want people to succeed. And if they are likeable it's even harder. Fact: We aren't being helpful to them or the organization.
4. Bad managers are toxic. It's easy to believe we're dealing with a single performance issue. We're not. Toxic managers are impacting the performance of everyone around them.
5. If you think you can't live without someone, you can. What would
you do if, God forbid, they dropped dead tomorrow? It could happen. And
life will go on.
What about our friends in the examples?
The Global Operations guru will soon become an individual contributor and technical advisor. It will work well.
Brilliant Finance Whiz has become the Chief Economic Officer (newly created role) of a major global enterprise. His second-in-command, a good manager, got the top job. Everyone is satisfied with the outcome and performance is top-notch all around.
Regulatory Compliance bully: we don't know yet. The company is still willing to invest in professional development.
Do you have a "But they're so intelligent. . ." story? Help the workplace community and send in your story through a Comment or email.