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People Dislike Really Smart Leaders: It’s Quite True!

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Written by: Erica Sunarjo

You’d think that you’d want smart leaders leading the workforce. Objectively speaking, that’s quite true. Smart leaders are more effective than their less intelligent brethren. This is due to their ability to see further ahead, nip problems in the bud before they grow into real emergencies, and conceive of tailor made solutions.

The thing is, truth and perception aren’t always the same thing. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that shows that sometimes we hold beliefs which are entirely contrary to reality. One example is the backfire effect. That’s the one where if your deeply held beliefs are challenged with actual evidence, instead of changing our minds we become more convinced of our original position.

You’re pretty stupid for a smart guy

The same seems to happen with overly smart leaders. Even though they’re more effective, they end up being seen as being less so. There seems to be a tipping point at about an IQ of 120. Up to that point, leaders are seen as more effective while beyond it, the effects seem to reverse.

For those in technical fields, there is some good news. The point seems to lie a little higher than that. In more social fields, on the other hand, it the inflection point seems to be lower down.

The authors of the study do have some theories as to why this might be the case. They suggest that it might be down to it being harder for most people relate to smarter leaders and the ideas the present. Or that they communicate in ways that ordinary people don’t understand. Similarly, they argue that the solutions that these leaders come up with might just go over the heads of employees. Sure, they work, but if it’s too demanding for the average employee, they might not seem to.

Other people’s theories

Of course, the authors are hardly the only people who have a theory about why this is the case. Some theorize that it’s down to intelligent leaders not needing as many leadership skills to get to the same position as others. Of course, that begs the question ‘what are leadership skills?’ I mean, it would seem likely that problem solving and general intelligence would belong in that category, no?

Elsewhere, somebody suggested that it was down not just to other people finding it difficult to relate to smart leaders, but smart leaders struggling to relate to their less intelligent subordinates as well. Smart leaders might struggle to appreciate the opinions of those below them. Even worse, as positions of authority have been shown to dampen empathy, they might not feel they need to.

Then there was the idea that smarter people are focused on different things. They might not care as much about the nitty gritty of the company and instead focus on the long-term goals of the company and similar things. This would make the average employee feel that their boss was distant and detached. Obviously, that would not be great for morale.

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There was even the suggestion that intelligent people simply think so differently from people 20 or so IQ points below them that they might as well be a different species. This is down to such things as cognitive load, whether we think emotionally or use a rule-based system and so. These differences make it so that the leader and employee struggle to connect.

They point to a useful example – politicians are often intelligent but not overly so. They often sit somewhere in the range of 120 to 130 IQ. The policy wonks they employ, in the meantime, are yet another step up from that. They have an IQ of about 150 or so.

The reason things work this way is because the policy wonks are too far beyond the normal people to translate their ideas across correctly. That’s what the politicians are for. They serve as translators, if you will, who help get across the word point.

The jury is still out

Of course, the truth is that we don’t know which of these solutions is the right one. It could be any of these or none of them. Only more research will reveal what the connection actually is. Of course, that does introduce a problem. If you’re a smart leader then obviously you’ll want to take care of this problem. But how? If we don’t know the cause of the problem, then how can we create a solution?

The one common refrain across all of these ideas mentioned above seems to be a need to bridge the chasm between the two groups of people – the intelligent leader and their less intelligent employees. The best way to generally do that is empathy. Empathy, after all, doesn’t suffer the same problems as logic – in that we might function on entirely different wavelengths.

Nurturing an understanding of why other people feel the way they do is the first step to being able to communicate with them in a clear and obvious way. That will help you whether you’re an overly intelligent leader or not and will help you whether you’re at work or not.

How to cultivate empathy

If you want to cultivate empathy there are a lot of ways to do so. Most important of all, however, is to actually associate with the people who you want to develop empathy for. If you don’t interact with those people, then you will always struggle to understand them.

Fortunately, this type of interaction would also seem to be the clue to preventing a lot of the other problems pinpointed by the armchair philosophers reflecting on the implications of this study.

And if that’s not enough? Then perhaps it’s time to take a page out of the politician’s book. Find somebody who can translate your ideas across to your employees and work through them. Of course, then you will have to be willing to cede the floor to them on the occasion, which might be hard. At the same time, considering how smart you are, you can understand the long-term benefits of doing so.

Erica Sunarjo graduated from South Texas College majoring in Marketing and Creative Writing. She used her knowledge to make a difference in the realm of business copywriting and invested heavily in traveling and language learning. At present, Erica is fluent in French and Spanish, studying Chinese and working her way to being a multilingual copywriter. She keeps track of the latest trends in IT and technologies, blogs about efficient strategies in education and business coaching, holds educational webinars.

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