Why You Should Want to Work With Smart People

I read, post and respond to a lot of questions on Quora.  It’s a great place to interact with others and learn.  And who doesn’t want to learn?  With the idea of learning in mind, I wanted to share one of my answers which addressed working with smart people.   The question asked was “What is the most annoying thing about smart people?”  While I realize smart people may be portrayed as annoying but you really should consider the alternative of being surrounded by, or even worse, working in organizations led by the less intelligent.

One of my all time favorite articles that addresses this question is from 2005 Harvard Business Review, entitled “Competent Jerks, Lovable fools and the formation of social networks.” It basically says that people consistently and overwhelmingly prefer to work with a “lovable fool” than with a competent jerk.  Now, by competent jerk, we are talking about smart people that are socially awkward.  You might even think they are a little arrogant.  Whatever the reason, you’ve found a way to dislike them.  But is this a good approach for you?  Is it best for the company?  Before we dive into the discussion, here’s what I’ve learned from smart people and why I would prefer to work with them as opposed to a “lovable fool.”

My first experience with smart people was in graduate school.  My advisor and I were about the same age.  He did all of his work at Purdue University.  He was one of those “never made a ‘B’ kind of people. He was different but he was smart.  He had ten students that he advised.  Intellectually, I probably ranked number 10 on the list.  I knew it and didn’t have an issue with it.  I knew there are two kinds of people in engineering graduate school: smart people and those who work their butts off. Well, you know where I fit in.  But, I had to graduate and I knew that smart people would help me get through it all.  They did.  I opened my mind to learning.  Sometimes I felt dumb because I just didn’t get it.  There was one engineering technique, called the standstill frequency response, which took me a year to understand.  No matter how hard they described it, I just was picking up what they were putting down.  Then, I’m working the lab and BAM, it just hit me.  I thought, wow, why was that so hard.  They helped me graduate.  I was much better off hanging around them as opposed to people who didn’t understand everything we were doing.  The benefits of being around smart people were real.  But this is college, right?  Try befriending a lot of dumb people and completing your degree successfully.  It just might be a little harder.

Years later, I worked in a company of 700 people, where over 400 of them held PhDs.  It was a Research and Development Consortium.  I jumped into it mostly to see if I could survive.  I knew how to learn and ask for help when I needed it.  The good thing was my coworkers were smart. I mean like “Masters from MIT and PhD from Berkeley” smart.  This type of atmosphere can be a little intimidating.  After all, your own intelligence is vetted very quickly.  But that shouldn’t be a problem.  I wasn’t as smart as they were and that was ok.  It became evident that I had to find the value I had to offer.  For the most part, it was I that benefited the most from what they had to offer.  Here’s what I learned about smart people.

  • They never knew enough.They constantly studied, experimented and learned about their area of expertise.  It turns out that this is the behavior that makes you an expert.
  • They debated when they had an argument.Managers don’t do this because feelings get hurt. But technical people argue around the facts. Ensuring the team is right is far more important than ensuring someone’s ego isn’t bruised. Do you really want to risk failure to save someone’s feelings (who shouldn’t have inserted them to start with)?
  • They didn’t contribute for the sake of it.If they didn’t know anything about the discussion, they stayed out of it. Diversity of thought is nice but it must be helpful to be worth consideration.
  • Unfamiliarity didn’t scare them.If they entered into a situation they had no experience with, they studied and learned what others have done in similar situations to get some idea what any particular action would result in.
  • They are always eager to help.I’ve never worked for so many people who truly saw the value others had to offer and often displayed that understanding by sharing their time to develop others.
  • Team success was more important than personal success.You’ve probably never seen this in business before but these professionals are heavily focused on achieving goals and creating success. They don’t focus on power and money.
  • Success was about effort.They didn’t hesitate to dedicate time and effort, which was usually defined by the difficulty of the task, not by the number of hours in the day.

To get a better perspective on smart people, I thought it necessary to assess working with the intellectually challenged.  This could be your “lovable fool.”  In this discussion, I would like to consider the impact these members could have on your organization, especially if they occupy influential positions.  If you’ve had any experience here, leave a comment and share your story. I’m sure you’ll find many who will appreciate it.

  • They make “gut” decisions. They avoid any objective or analytical approach to decision-making.  This could occur for many reasons, such as don’t know how to do the analysis, don’t understand the value of the analysis or don’t realize that they probably aren’t the first people to ever engage in any specific situation so there should be some learning that could occur from other companies’ experiences.  It’s the exercise of unfounded theory.
  • They have no creativity. They avoid thinking out of the box or engaging in creative methods.  This type of thinking creates risk and reduces their sense of security.  If they do something different and it all goes wrong, then they’ll have to take the blame for it (even though it was their decision).
  • They don’t use metrics. Metrics….smetrics! Who wants to know how well they are doing?  Using metrics is likely to get them called out for poor performance.  If they don’t establish any quantitative measures, no one can know how epic their fail really was.  What a philosophy! I never fail because I don’t measure what I’m doing.
  • They use feelings. Their decisions are driven heavily by the desire to avoid negative feelings. It’s about how they want to feel or what they don’t want to feel. For example, a person who feels anxious about the potential outcome of a risky choice may choose a safer option rather than a potentially more lucrative option.  Now, can anyone tell quantify the correlation between feelings and success?
  • They avoid accountability. They lack the motivation to monitor to their own decision-making.  Even when motivated, obtaining accurate awareness of their decision-making is next to impossible.  We still want to love the fool, and when they are in charge, we want them to love us.
  • They focus on self-preservation. To some extent we all do this.  But few of us have the ability to change the organization to ensure our own job stability.  Sometimes this pressure to self-preserve leads to good decisions for the individual but bad decisions for the organization, such as chasing short term profits to ensure they get their bonus.

Ask me if I miss working with smart people? Damn right I do. I’d much rather work with smart people.   Sure, sometimes you are humbled by how little you really know but I now view that as an opportunity to grow and learn.  If you don’t care to learn anymore, then you should never be offended by smart people.  After all, who doesn’t want to work with people who love to solve the hard problems?  As an entrepreneur running my own company, I want smart people working for me.  Mistakes cost my company money and threaten my future.  The fewer of those I have, they more financially stable the company will be.  In the end, you have to ask yourself this question “will smart people help the company grow?”  In my experience, they do.  If you don’t have a lot of experience working with smart people, you may ask yourself another question “will the intellectually challenged people negatively help the company grow?”  You don’t have to really answer this question from your own experience, as there are many examples of organizational failures to provide the evidence.  Some statistics show that 95 percent of companies fail before 10 years of operation.  These failures happen very often.  They can drive companies into the ground with poor decision-making, which I’ve witnessed way too often. They can also wreck a company by chasing their own financial gain.   All of these turn out to be detrimental to any successful career you try to build because you fall victim to things you can influence, impact or control.

One last thing to consider, if you’re working hard to earn numerous graduate degrees that create the perception that you’re brilliant, you might want to consider in your career planning the idea that the world may not see your brilliance in a flattering light.  As you know, the brilliant people don’t always rise to the top and lead organizations….unless they create their own company (which is a discussion for later).

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