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How Smart People Sabotage Opportunities for Success

How Smart People Sabotage Opportunities for Success

Start a management degree at American Public University.

By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management, American Public University

I enjoy reading articles that encourage and challenge us to perform some soul-searching to determine what our next career steps should be. One Harvard Business Review article that I found fascinating, “5 Ways Smart People Sabotage Their Success” by Dr. Alice Boyes, dealt with mapping out some guidelines for smart people who want to be successful. The title reminded me of something my father taught me when I was in middle school and was selected for the accelerated academic track.

Although my father was proud of me, he wanted to be very clear about one thing. He said, “Book smarts will give you the key to get into the door, but street smarts will allow you to continue to live there.”

He meant that I needed a balance of education and common sense to be successful. You can have all the formal knowledge in the world, but you must also understand people and your environment.

Smart People Struggle in Certain Areas

Boyes is a former clinical psychologist. She says raw intelligence is undoubtedly a huge asset, but it isn’t everything.

Boyes identifies five areas where she has observed smart people struggling. Here are the areas she identifies and my commentary, based on my experiences in higher education and the corporate environment:

1. Smart people sometimes devalue other skills like relationship building and over-concentrate on intellect. Due to their intelligence, very smart people sometimes see their success as inevitable and see other skills as less important.

It seems like the more education people receive, the more specialized they believe they have to be for certain tasks. They devote a significant amount of time developing that specific craft or talent.

At the same time, these individuals do not believe they have to acquire non-essential skills to succeed in their line of work. My response to that thinking is, “What happens when your assistant is not around?” If some executives are at a peer meeting without their assistants, for instance, how will they interact and network if they do not have people skills?

I remember an incident that occurred several years ago when I was in human resources at an academic institution. A faculty member who was considered a top scholar in her field came to my office with a request.

Although she had direct deposit to a bank for her salary, she wanted my staff to manage her checkbook. She thought balancing her account was too trivial a task for her, given the other activities she had to perform.

It took some time for me to explain to her why her request was denied. Although she accepted my response, she did not agree with it.

I have often said that people should operate in the areas where they have unique gifts and not stray into other lanes. For example, I could paint my house, but it makes much more sense to hire a painter who can do the job more efficiently and quicker than I could.

I could use the time I save to write or work on projects. Some people would call this effective time management.

2. Teamwork can be frustrating for very smart people. People who grasp concepts quickly and demand high standards for their performance can create difficulties when they work with others. Some individuals take longer to process information and grasp ideas.

I love and value teamwork, especially in an organization. Staying ahead of the competition involves looking at a situation from many different angles.

If you don’t look at a situation from all sides, you do your organization an injustice, especially if you do not create teams that represent a diversity of thought. Different perspectives allow you to get a glimpse of possible solutions to a problem you want to solve.

However, I encounter individuals who are highly competitive and trust their skills. But working on a team appears to handicap and slow down their problem-solving.

As a result, they prefer to work alone and bring their results to the team to implement. In many cases, these individuals were burnt in the past when they allowed themselves to rely on the assistance of a co-worker who didn’t have the same ability and knowledge.

3. Smart people often attach much of their self-esteem to being smart, which decreases their resilience and leads to avoidance behavior. If a lot of your self-esteem rests on your intelligence, it can be tough to be in situations that reveal chinks in your armor.

For example, some smart people fear being exposed as an imposter. They are resistant to placing themselves in situations where there is a possibility where they will be perceived as less than perfect.

Also, these people may also be reluctant to work with people who are even more skilled or intelligent, have issues with receiving critical feedback, and are unwilling to take risks. Ultimately, those attitudes restrict their professional development.

Financial planner Carl Richards, writing in The New York Times, explains how a person seeking to do new things and pursue new dreams can “run in this thing, this fear that you’re bumping up against the limits of your ability.” He calls it a “roadblock of fear.”

Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes call this feeling “the imposter syndrome.” They describe it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Although these people are “highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

4. Smart people get bored quickly. Being smart is not the same as being curious. But if you possess both qualities, you might find yourself becoming easily bored with repeating the same behaviors.

This concept does not apply to scholars who like to do research, even though their methodology may require repetition. However, smart people working in other fields may seek out more exciting tasks and believe that their subordinates should perform the repetitious work.

5. Smart people sometimes see in-depth thinking and reflection as the solution to every problem. Bright people are accustomed to succeeding through their thinking skills, but they can sometimes ignore a different approach that could be more beneficial.

While we live in a society that embraces “deep dives” and exploration at a more profound level, there is such a thing as over-analysis. Sometimes, when we over-analyze our behavior, we lose our chance to pass through the door of opportunity.

Getting past our blind spots takes time and diligence. Some people might take years to figure out their blind spots and how to deal with them. However, we all have opportunities to improve ourselves every day.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and influential leader, manifesting people skills, a systematic approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.