how to manage when everyone thinks they’re the smartest person in the room

So you’ve got a team made up of smart, driven people. That’s a good thing, right? Of course it is – except when each of those people thinks he or she is the smartest one in the room and wants everyone to know it.

It can be tough to keep discussions moving when everyone thinks they have incredibly important things to say (and say and say) on a topic, and it can be challenging to get a team of big egos to work together productively.

Here’s how you can help keep a team of smarty-pants moving forward.

Be clear about when debate needs to end. As a manager, you should welcome input and discussion – but on teams where everyone thinks they’re the smartest one in the room, there’s some danger of getting mired down in discussion and debate. When you need the debate to end and need everyone to move forward in the same direction, be clear about that. It’s okay to say directly, “I’ve really appreciated hearing everyone’s thoughts on this. I’m going to take everyone’s input, think it over, and come back with a decision later this week.”

Model humility and openness for your team. This may mean that you need to letgo of your own need to be the smartest one in the room. Sure, this may not describe you – but be honest with yourself about whether it does. Many managers feel like they need to demonstrate their value by having all the answers – or at least by having more answers than anyone else on their team does. But in reality, “having all the answers” doesn’t even make the top 10 list of important qualities for a manager to have. It’s important than you know how to get to answers, yes, but it’s perfectly okay for you to seek out others’ input, admit when you don’t know things, and want to take time to mull over problems without knowing the solution right off the bat.

Consider making humility an explicit value for your team. Formally articulating that humility is a team value, and talking about what that does (and, crucially, doesn’t) look like in practice can help call out behavior that’s counterproductive and reinforce the behaviors that you want to see more of. For example, you might talk as a team about how the lack of humility can get in the way of moving conversations and solutions forward (particularly on teams where everyone loves hearing the sound of their own voices in meetings). You can also give feedback when you see someone letting their ego get in the way of productive relationships or conversations (“I noticed you seemed reluctant to let Jane have a say in that conversation – what was going on there?”), as well as when you see someone doing a good job of demonstrating humility (“I really appreciated that you were open about not having the answer Bob was asking for and that you were candid about how tough the problem is”).

Give direct feedback where appropriate. If you have a staff member whose ego is alienating others, do the person the service of talking to her about how she’s being perceived. You don’t want people to hide their intellect – that’s part of why you hired them – but you do want them to care about relationships with others. After all, it’s no good being the smartest person in the room if no one will listen to you.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Cath in Canada

    I work in academia, and am wondering how “consider making humility an explicit value for your team” would go over here… another of those “except in academia” situations!

    1. James M.

      BWAHAHAHAHA hahaha… *wheeze*

      Yeah, academia is fundamentally a culture of cooing over select individuals. Humility would be the proverbial snowball in hell.

    2. Melissa

      +100. I’m in academia too. Honestly, even being clear about when the debate needs to end would be difficult for some academics who throw good away in the service of perfect.

    3. Patty

      I work in academia, and I think it’s very applicable in many instances, especially in college-wide committees, ones that include faculty and administrators. I’ve already shared it…

    4. Mallory Janis Ian

      Ha, yes, I was picturing all the faculty meetings over ever been in the whole time I was reading this. My boss did model most of Alison’s suggestions, and it worked to some extent, but in the end, it was still academia.

  2. MaryMary

    Any advice for when you’re part of the Smartest Team Ever but not managing it? The account executives in my office all consider themselves god’s gift to the industry. I need to walk a fine line between being humble and advocating for myself. I’m not the one who decides when a debate is over (although I have stopped ongoing debates because no one would compromise…but then we never reach a decision). Feedback has been given. Our CEO loves metaphors about how we’re a team: maybe you’re the quarteback, or the wide receiver, but without the blocking and tackling…. (we are also an orchestra sometimes). A couple people have been given very direct feedback, but give responses like “I act like I’m smarter than Joe because I AM smarter than Joe. He’s a moron!” Can I manage up/sideways, or do I just put up with the dysfunction?

    1. James M.

      How are your tactical skills? You can win if you pick your battles and conserve ammunition. Document debates you’re not directly involved in and use their bias trends against anyone who argues with you. When your opponent starts to reel, preemptively divert his defensive flailing by invoking the project/goals you’re both trying to reach.

      For the metaphorically challenged CEO, feign confusion about his metaphors and offer whimsical alternatives. If he says you’re a football team, say “When only 2 guys handle the ball, the rest of the team is kinda pointless. I think we’re more like a curling team.”. If your CEO has to do an extra 3 minutes of defending his metaphors, he might think twice about using them around you.

      Also, my advice is for entertainment value only and has no basis in what’s good for you.

  3. ThursdaysGeek

    Being smart isn’t nearly as useful as being wise, and a wise person knows that they can learn from other smart people, knows the value of listening as well as speaking. If they are only smart, and want to let others know how smart they are, they’re not as smart as they think they are, because they are still foolish.

    1. AnonEMoose

      This so true. My husband and I both play tabletop role-playing games (think “Dungeons and Dragons”). In D&D and Pathfinder (which is more or less a spin-off of D&D), characters have statistics that express how well (or poorly) they do things.

      Two of the specific statistics in this system are Intelligence and Wisdom; they’re separate because Intelligence is mostly “book knowledge.” Wisdom is more about understanding people, evaluating situations, that sort of thing – more practical, less theoretical, if that makes sense.

      So my husband and I have been known, when describing people or their actions, to say “High INT, low WIS.” That seems like pretty much what you’re talking about here. And, personally, it took me awhile to realize that soft skills matter, and that they can actually help me get stuff done, even if sometimes they take a little more time up front.

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        I have another analogy, last written here a couple of years ago:

        Intelligence, knowledge, wisdom.

        I have an analogy. Intelligence is how big the gas tank is, knowledge is how much gas is in the tank, and wisdom is the mileage you get from the fuel. You can have a huge tank, and it can be completely full, but if you get lousy mileage, you’re not going to go as far as the person with a smaller tank and better mileage. And when buying a car, people don’t generally care about how big the tank is, they care about the mileage. In fact, most people who talk about the size of the tank are those who tend to get lousy mileage.

        But here’s the cool thing: intelligence is something you’re born with and doesn’t change much. But you can keep adding knowledge and wisdom to the mix, and those will completely overshadow the innate size of the tank. And think how far you can go with a large and full tank, and great mileage!

      2. A Minion

        Nothing helpful to add, just wanted to say “Hi!” to a fellow gamer! :) My husband and I also play D&D (never tried Pathfinder).

        1. AnonEMoose

          Hi :-)!

          Pathfinder is basically D&D version 3.75. So if you’ve played D&D version 3.5, you’ve “almost” played Pathfinder. More or less, they simplified some of the more complicated mechanics and updated some of the character classes. Plus they started publishing what they call “adventure paths,” which are series of linked adventures (usually 6) that advance the characters through one longer story. They’re pretty cool.

          1. Cherry Scary

            I’m about to start DM’ing my first DnD 5 campaign! Hello fellow tabletoppers. :)

      3. I'm a Little Teapot

        Ha. I’m also a D&D player, and I’ve long described *myself* as “high INT, low WIS.”

        1. AnonEMoose

          So true! I think I’ve mentioned that I work on a local-to-me science fiction convention, right? So I know AAAALLLLL about high INT, low WIS, and CHA-as-a-dump-stat…

  4. Bun

    Any tips on starting that conversation about how a “smarty pants” is being perceived? I know I need to have that conversation with one of my direct reports, but I’m not sure how to begin. Most of what I’m seeing and hearing is not very specific, or observed in other people’s reactions to one of my star performers. I don’t have concrete examples to give — like every single piece of management advice requires — but I know that if my co-workers thought I was condescending, I’d want to be told so I could work on it. What can I say when I can’t give specific examples of the behavior that’s causing this perception?

    1. AnonEMoose

      I think you could share what you have observed. Maybe something like “In the Teapot Project Manager meeting, you cut Amanda off at least three times that I observed. It’s important to ensure that you are treating your co-workers respectfully; please try not to interrupt someone who is speaking.” Or “Your response to Jerry when he asked you about the Teapot Sales Figures was patronizing.” Things like that?

    2. fposte

      Agreeing with the Moose. Pay attention and collect some concrete examples. If you can’t identify the behavior, identify the moment–but I bet if you’re attentive to the person’s tone, body language, phraseology, etc., you’ll be able to find some examples that contribute to way other people have those reactions.

      1. Bun

        Thank you both. I’ve had co-workers in the past “vent” about this person, praising his work and condemning his attitude in the same breath, always followed by “but I don’t want you to do anything about it.” Well, he can’t improve if he doesn’t recognize the problem!

        I’ve started a note to list observations so I can gather my thoughts. I’d rather have the conversation sooner, but it looks like I need to prepare some more first.

        1. Dr. Johnny Fever

          Additionally, focus on the business results of the behaviors, not the personal likes/dislikes.

          For example, if you are working with someone who communicates poorly, you may want to phrase the conversation in terms of what the team needs for communication, not necessarily your preferences for word choice or channel choice. If you have clear result-driven reasons for the direct report to discontinue the behavior, focusing on the desired business result can eliminate any debate about the subjectivity of the behavior.

    3. A Definite Beta Guy

      What can I say when I can’t give specific examples of the behavior that’s causing this perception?

      Nothing. If it’s really important, finding specific examples helps out the conversation a lot.

    4. Concrete Feedback

      Are there examples that people general know come across as “smarty pants”? For example, sometimes people think you’re not polite or too direct if you speak/write in short, fragmented sentences. The easy fix is to string sentences together or write paragraphs in your email instead of bullet points. Alternatively, the high, sing-songy voice is perceived as less intelligent or dismissive, and uptalk at the end of a sentence is perceived as being less confident. Does this person generally speak with a tone or sentence structure that is generally known to be perceived as condescending? That might be a concrete enough example. Also, if this person is ALWAYS the first to speak, ALWAYS the last to speak, and ALWAYS the loudest to speak, those are good examples, too. This person might know how they come across and not know specifically how to change it, so even general “your tone sounds this way” might help.

  5. Jill

    I’m a non-manager and sometimes a wee bit of sarcasm can go a long way. Like, “Yes, Joe, we all KNOW that you KNOW everything but could you let Doris finish what she was saying?” Or a smart alecky sounding, “Well, Joe, you know everything…what do you think we should do?” Sarcastic, probably not the most professional, but a subtle way to drive the point home that someone is a know-it-all.

    Because, of course, know it all’s truly believe they are smarter than everyone. They don’t have a clue how annoying and offensive they can be. I mean, they can’t help how dumb the rest of us are, right?

    1. James M.

      Joe Know-it-all would be pleased that you’re catching on to how inferior your little mind is compared to his. IOW, sarcasm could backfire.

    2. fposte

      As a manager, I’d probably have a chat with a staffer who was doing this, though. It hurts the discussion rather than furthering it.

  6. AW

    It probably helps to not hire a bunch of egos in the first place, which would be a legit use of hiring for culture fit.

  7. CC

    I’m a non manager, but I work with a lot of awfully smart and skilled people and I’ve lead meetings for projects I’ve been working on.

    A few things I’ve done that I think have made stuff smoother:
    There’s a concept called bikeshedding, which is the idea that things of middling importance can quickly take up a lot of time in discussion and effort. I try to be aware personally of this, and I think mentioning it casually out of meeting helps people think about if spending so much time on discussion of minor things is really that important. This can take care of a lot, and if you have a good rapport, you can get a meeting back on track by saying “I think we’re bikeshedding a bit, let’s see if we can come back to this one.”

    This could be career specific, but a lot of times discussions happen because it is all very theoretical and not everybody has the same conceptualization of the issue in mind. If things start getting too deep (and a lot of smart people tend to take their ideas and run very far out with them), I’ll say something to the effect of “Let’s get a few of these concepts sketched up and see what works/doesn’t when we have something more concrete”. It tables the more open ended elements of the discussion and meetings tend to be more focused when samples are put into play, even if they are very broad.

    I think a big thing is knowing when a discussion is stale or when it is still evolving. I’ve had meetings that went wild with madcap ideas that still ended up being very valuable, and there have been meetings where variations of “I like red”, “I like blue” continue for far too long.

  8. Linda

    I believe the culture at my company is to hire type A personalities and let them duke it out, as in, “it’s good when the team doesn’t completely get along.” I’ve even seen the manager try to stir the pot by replying and cc’ing people on an obviously private email that may be responsible for the shoddy work someone was referring to.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      Even the smartest person in the room doesn’t know everything that all the other people in the room know — you can learn something from everyone. So you treat them with respect and a willingness to listen to and learn from them, and if they aren’t arrogant jerks, they’ll recognize that they can also learn from you. If they are arrogant jerks, then you’ve wasted a bit of time, but not lowered yourself to their level.

    2. Camellia

      Well, not claiming to be the smartest person in the room but I do have a strong personality so maybe this could apply to both:

      I listen more than I talk. I keep a mental list of my own ideas, thoughts, etc., and then offer the one point that no one else has thought of. And sometimes, if there is a ton of discussion flying around but no one is really in control of it, I wait for a pause and then jump in with a succinct summation. That usually stops things in its tracks while everyone mulls it over, then there is a general okay-back-on-track-now-let’s-move-on response.

    3. bridget

      I task myself with taking unnecessarily detailed notes about what other people are saying, so that I am forced to listen to what is coming out of their mouths and can’t just think about all the great things I’m going to say when they come upon a pause.

      I literally bite my tongue (hard) to keep from interrupting.

      Once it actually is my turn to speak, after un-biting my tongue, I force myself to take one full, deep breath before speaking. This seems like a perfectly normal speaking pace to everyone else, and avoids making me sound like the crazed person who has been desperately waiting for the exact second when she can burst forth with all her cleverness.

      P.S. – By answering this question, I am not stating that I am the smartest person in the world, but I definitely have a very unflattering tendency to show off and make sure that people are impressed with me. (I don’t consciously think of it that way in the moment, but I can see the pattern when reflecting).

    4. Renee

      I’m used to this at my current job. I have years of industry experience, a broad background, and a problem-solving, analytical mind. I am also incredibly passionate about a lot of topics, and I’m well aware that coming on too strong will kill the chances of making the changes I consider critical.

      I have a few rules, never before explicitly stated.
      1. Jump in first, while everyone is hesitating. Starting the conversation gets it moving in a favorable direction.
      2. One you’ve kicked the conversation, step back and let others talk. Contribute more only if the conversation bogs down, or if rule 3 or 4 below apply.
      3. Decide which disagreements are critical. I can argue almost everything right now, but I have a small handful of pet topics I’ll argue as long as practical, and bring up again every month or two. All the rest of the stuff, I let the team go with another opinion without dissent. If I’m right and they are wrong, we will be revisiting it soon enough.
      4. Remember to solicit input, always. I keep a record of my colleagues’ experience, education, projects, etc. I’ll say, “Joe has a background in X – what do you think from that perspective?” Or “Sylvia worked on a big project around that last year. Did you get her input? ” Letting people know I recognize their expertise both ensures that multiple perspectives are heard, but also I think makes it easier for my opinions to be respected. I work in a very complicated, multidisciplinary field. Someone else always has something to say I hadn’t considered.

      I’ve gained lots of respect over the last year. Part of it is because I have deep knowledge and good ideas. But a huge part of it is that I do listen to and respect the different opinions around me, pick my battles, and make sure not to hog the spotlight. Just because I have to most information doesn’t make my information the most valuable for every situation.

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