I was listening to a webinar about managing knowledge workers. The main thrust of the presentation is that management practices were developed in a time when a company consisted of one "brain" and many hands to carry out the work - but in the present day companies require people to be creative and innovated, yet they still manage them like drudges. As such the most valuable people have a deep sense of dissatisfaction, do much less good than they are capable of, and leave to find greener pastures.
All of this is good and well, but most of the presentation was about the "problems" that mangers face when dealing with smart people - and it came out as a long litany of complaints that are ... well ... maybe at least a little bit fair fair. I wanted very much to deny it, but the speaker had a lot of things to say that were entirely undeniable. While smart people are very valuable to organizations in the present day, they can be very difficult at times.
That is likely an understatement. Considering the litany of complaints below, "difficult" is perhaps too gentle a term.
How Smart People Feel About Their Work
- Smart people are very attached to their ideas and are deeply disappointed when their ideas are not implemented exactly as conceived. If any of their ideas is rejected, modified, or set aside, they are inconsolable.
- Smart people are sensitive and possessive about the projects they work on, and they remain tenacious about completing a project even if they sense it is not leading anywhere, ever hoping that it might have tremendous value that won't be realized until it's proven out.
- Smart people are attracted to intellectual challenges. They will devote the majority of their effort to a problem that is hard to solve and are less interested in problems that are easier to solve even when the return on investment is higher.
- Smart people will be drawn to a solution that is elegant, intricate, or unusual - even when there is a simple, straightforward, and unglamorous solution that would fix the problem better and faster.
- Smart people have little tolerance for the mundane and tedious necessities. Any activity that is not using them to their full potential is making them worse, or at least rusty, at what they do best.
- Smart people care about status and recognition, but not in the traditional form of money and titles. Instead, they seek the respect for their capabilities as demonstrated when their ideas are given resources and support.
- Smart people are immune to compliments. Vague expressions of praise from someone who doesn't understand what they are doing is disingenuous and a bit of an insult. Regardless of how they behave they never think their work is perfect and lose respect for those who can't see its flaws.
How Smart People Feel About Their Managers
- Smart people hate being managed. They feel they are most effective when given a problem and are left alone to solve it, and find attempts to "assist" or "collaborate" to be wasteful, controlling, and intrusive.
- Smart people are attuned to subterfuge and suspect it, particularly of management. They readily recognize the tricks and tactics of manipulation, and are offended not only at the attempt to control but the presumption that they aren't smart enough to see through the act.
- Smart people are never happy about having their work approved or controlled, particularly when those who approve their work are traditionalists who seek to squelch innovation in favor of keeping to business as usual.
- Smart people resent a manager's demand for them to "show" progress to others. They spend a great deal of time thinking and researching before they take action, with long periods of quiet time between short bursts of activity.
- Smart people resent being reminded of the bigger picture. They are perfectionists who will often delve into the details and feel that the bigger picture will take care of itself if all the little things are done correctly.
- If a manager shows support of smart people, it will make them all the more aggressive in promoting their ideas. If the manger doesn't support them, they will shut down and look for an exit. There is no middle ground.
- Smart people have an ambivalent relationship with managers, expecting to be supported without any interference in their work. For the same reason, many smart people make very poor managers from other smart people because they cannot step back from the work.
- Smart people are not impressed by rank and title and very often have contempt for those who have been elevated in an organization for playing politics. They care about what other smart people think of them, but do not regard managers as particularly smart people.
- Smart people are loyal to their work but not to their bosses. They recognize that a manager has his own agenda (generally of self-interest) and recognizes that a manager's priorities can be shuffled at any moment, so long-term loyalty is not advisable.
- Smart people expect to be recognized and rewarded without having to beg for attention. They believe that if someone is a good manager, that person will be aware of their value without needing to be told.
- Even when a smart person has a good leader, he seldom recognizes it, and is more attuned to leadership mistakes than successes. The highest compliment a smart person can give a supervisor is that "you're not getting in the way too much."
How Smart People Feel About Their Companies
- Smart people seldom mention the place they work to others. They are identify what they do, but feel that the company they work for is incidental - their pride is in doing something, not in belonging somewhere.
- Smart people want to pursue the ideas they are passionate about. They will reluctantly attend to the mundane and administrative duties, but would prefer to spend their time solving problems and achieving goals than dealing with corporate necessities.
- Smart people are highly independent. While many require the resources of a company to pursue their work, they feel that it is their work alone and resent the tendency of the company that provides these resources to wish to control the work.
- Smart people believe themselves to be unique and indispensible to their companies, but consider their companies to be commoditized and easily replaced. Any firm in the same industry would value their ideas just as much as the one they happen to be working for, and some firms would value it more than their present employer.
- Smart people also recognize that not every idea will pan out, and expect that their companies are quicker to punish their failures than reward their successes. They believe their employers thing they're "only as good as their last mistake."
- Smart people challenge the traditions of their companies. Anything "old" is automatically assumed to be wrong and they will quickly fall in line with an opposing position by default.
- Smart people seem socially awkward but are highly organizationally savvy. They see a company as a system, with people and functions and rules. While they prefer to focus on work and avoid political games, they are not at all naive and can be quite dangerous. They are expert gamers.
- Smart people care little for climbing the corporate ladder and often place their reference points outside of the organization, seeking mentors in those who have been successful elsewhere (and with whom they are not in direct competition).
- Smart people may appear to be loyal because they are not looking for work, but they expect that work is always looking for them. The best employer is the one that most values them, and if their own firm takes them for granted they believe that there are others who will be aggressive in recruiting them away.
How Smart People Feel About Dumb People
- Smart people abhor "dumb" people - they do not have any respect for those who are mundane an institutionalized, who like routine duties governed by rules and procedures, and who prefer to stick to business as usual.
- Smart people take a deep pleasure in breaking the rules and succeeding, because it proves to the mundane sort of person who believes in procedures and standards that such things are entirely unintelligent and counterproductive.
- Smart people do not like teaching others or sharing knowledge. They cling to the notion that "knowledge is power" and feel that those who want to access their knowledge without rewarding them for it are stealing what is most precious.
- Smart people are blunt and candid. They feel they already have the best idea and discussing anything else is merely a waste of time until the other person recognizes they are right, which is inevitable.
How Smart People Feel About Other Smart People
- Smart people want to be connected to other smart people to share knowledge and discuss ideas, but are more drawn to people who are smart in different ways so that they can benefit from collaboration between different subject matter experts rather than competing to be the most esteemed expert on the same subject.
- Smart people are very competitive with one another, particularly those who are smart in the same subject areas. They can admit that someone is smarter than themselves, but not without grave resentment.
- There is no greater feud in the workplace than occurs between two smart people who are convinced of mutually-exclusive ideas. They are convinced that they are right and anyone else, no matter how smart, is utterly wrong.
- At the same time, smart people begin to doubt the intelligence of anyone who fails to argue with them at least a little but, before ultimately accepting their ideas.
How Smart People Feel About Themselves
- Smart people feel "they are their work." When a smart person introduces himself, he will tell you what he has accomplished or what he is working on, right after their name (which they may not even mention).
- Smart people never feel that they are adequately valued - though "value" is not always about compensation alone, but the resources and latitude provided in support of their efforts.
- Smart people are not bystanders. Even when they are not taking action, they are carefully observing, figuring out how "the game" works and how they can win should they decide it's worth their effort to enter the arena.
- Smart people tend to be ungrateful. When they are recognized or rewarded, they generally feel that they have earned it and likely feel that they should have been recognized more generously and sooner than they were.
I would like to argue against all of this as a stereotype of smart people, but at the same time every one of these points is valid to some degree about the smartest people I have known - though admittedly, most of them seem conscious of the "smart" stereotype and try to avoid it. Meanwhile, quite a few not-so-smart people I have encountered play out these characteristics in a exaggerated manner as they are attempting to appear to be smarter than they are.
In the end, I have to fall back on an old adage - "there are no stereotypes without prototypes" - and if this portrayal of "smart people" is a gross caricature, it is not entirely without basis in the real behavior of real people.