How to Manage the “Smartest Person in the Room”

Management is a juggling act. You constantly have to balance the expectations of senior leadership with the resources and employees that you are given. On top of that, you also have to work with several different personalities who may or may not get along.

One of the main culprits that managers complain about is the “Smartest Person in the Room.” Whether this person is genuinely more intelligent than everyone else or just acts like it, colleagues and leaders alike often have to change their plans and management style to meet this person’s needs.

It is time to get to the root of the cause for this Smartest Person syndrome so you can develop a healthy working environment in the office.

How to Spot the Difference Between Intelligence and Ego

Your first step as a manager is to identify who is genuinely intelligent and who just thinks they are. While employees can be smart, some may over inflate themselves in an attempt to seem better than they are in the eyes of their peers and managers.

“Being the Smartest Person in the Room is about NEEDING to be the smartest person in the room, under pretty much all circumstances,” Patrick Henry, CEO at QuestFusion, writes. “It is the need to ALWAYS be right. This person needs to ALWAYS have the last word. They must feel superior to the other people in the room.”

At the end of the day, being the smartest person in the room doesn’t have much to do with being smart. It has to do with having a large ego and wanting to feel superior.

Ego Can Also be Insecurity

When someone on your team always has to be the best and puts out that they know more than their peers, that person is usually highly insecure.

“Consider that the know-it-all may display this personality trait because of a deep-seated insecurity and lack of confidence,” says business training consultant and author Renee Evenson. “Some people who feel inferior try to act superior as a defensive mechanism.”

Over time, employees will figure out who among them is actually smart and who is just loud and seemingly confident. It is up to you and other managers to also notice and make decisions based on those observations.

Learn to Identify Egotistic Behaviors

Like any good bluffer, there are certain “tells” you can learn to spot to determine who on your team is intelligent and who wants to appear that way.

Executive coach Jeff Snyder shares some traits of people who have “Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome,” so managers can identify these team members and better understand their perspectives:

  • They talk more than they listen.
  • They don’t consider other points of view.
  • They have a constant need to be right.
  • They give their opinions even when they are experts on the topic.
  • They are often unteachable or unwilling to learn.
  • They have low levels of emotional intelligence.

Furthermore, your “smart” employees might not want to push themselves as much as they should. Dedication and drive are often the main differences between “smart” employees and truly intelligent ones. Nicolas Cole, founder of the thought leadership agency Digital Press, says that the smartest people will dig deep into their fields and constantly work to become experts. They will try to learn other subjects and they will never be satisfied with what they know. Intelligence doesn’t just happen, Cole writes; it takes work.


How to Manage Employees Who Think They Are the Smartest

Some managers try to ignore employees who act like the smartest people in the room. This creates a frustrating work environment for team members who have to put up with their ego, while creating more insecurity for those who need to be the best.

If you work with someone with “Smartest Person in the Room syndrome,” you need to make cultural changes in your workplace to adjust their mindset.

Tell Them That They Are a Know-It-All

You may think that you are helping your employees by protecting their feelings, but you need to guide and manage your team members to be their best. “If you manage or mentor a know-it-all…you have an obligation to give them feedback,” writes career coach Priscilla Claman. “Let them know that their attitude is having a negative effect on their career.”  

Through this discussion evaluate the employee’s reaction to see if they are serious about making improvements professionally and personally. Remember, they have to want to change to better themselves not just to check off another accomplishment box.

“The employee needs to show a willingness to change his demeanor and personality,” agrees Luba S. Sydor, founder of human resources consultancy, Person 2 Person. As a manager, you can’t expect this change to come naturally or be completely unprompted. You need to provide support to improve their social skills, training or other weaknesses that make them a less-than-desirable employee.

Encourage Self-Reflection to Develop Emotional Intelligence

If you handle this discussion with your team members delicately, they should be able to identify certain problem behaviors within themselves that they can improve on, so you don’t have to explicitly say them.

“One thing I often look for in talent is that they have a really good sense of what they’re good and bad at,” explains Alexa von Tobel, founder of personal finance education company LearnVest. “It’s totally OK for people to be bad at things. It’s not totally OK for people to have no idea what they’re bad at.”

To address this, Tobel likes to ask about the feedback an employee has frequently heard as an alternative to the “what are your weaknesses” question. If you need to change a behavior or are bad at something, you have likely heard about it at various times in your career.


Create a Workplace Culture That Rewards Different Mindsets

As a leader, it is up to you to set the tone and culture for your team. Try to shift the priorities of team members to more of a collaborative environment that rewards teamwork instead of individuals.

Carol Rosa Sabia, C-Suite Executive Coach, provides some examples of how the “smartest person in the room” can develop this mindset shift:

  • Develop a curious mindset, where you look for multiple options and solutions instead of the best answer.
  • Ask open-ended questions that allow discussion because there is no “right” answer.
  • Coach people through their work and projects rather than directing others on how to do their work.

This process can change the culture of your whole team. Along with guiding your problem employee to think more openly and let others voice their ideas, you can create a space where everyone on your team feels comfortable speaking up — even if their answers aren’t perfect.

Emphasize the Value of Professional Growth and Training

Interestingly, people who consider themselves “The Smartest Person in the Room” or aspire to be, might not want to take steps to improve themselves professionally.

Executive coach May Busch says top players (and people who feel pressured into being the best) often surround themselves with “yes men” and people who don’t challenge them intellectually. When you guide them into a situation where they need to push themselves or their beliefs are challenged, they may struggle or give up.

Intervening to prevent the behavior of the “smartest person” can help you prevent mistakes and careless work in the future. “Most people make mistakes (and fail), not when they’re taking risk and pushing the boundaries, but when they sit back and relax,” millennial entrepreneur coach Matthew Turner explains. People are often blinded to the fact that they are making mistakes because they have already “made it.” Performance suffers even though the ego continues to grow.


How to Manage Genuinely Intelligent Employees

Managing wannabe smart employees can be difficult, but leading genuinely intelligent employees isn’t always easy.

Intelligent team members who don’t have challenges are quick to grow bored, Elisa Doucette at Simple Programmer writes. They become complacent, apathetic and disengaged from the company. Instead of coming to work as the genius ready to take on any challenge, they become the grump who gets annoyed when any new task is asked of them.

To solve this, career coach Marty Nemko even encourages managers to treat smarter employees differently than the others. Instead of letting office politics force you into treating all employees equally, give your top employees more challenges and more tests so you can watch them grow. They will become more confident in themselves because they are recognized and won’t need to overcompensate to try and make sure everyone knows that they are smart.

“Smart people obviously know they’re smart, which works to their advantage,” says leadership coach Marcel Schwantes. “They have high expectations of not only themselves but also of the people they work with, which ups the game for bosses to manage them well.” In a healthy environment, the cream rises to the top, and your smart employees will constantly raise the bar while encouraging other high-potential performers to try and keep up.

How to Manage Employees Who Are Smarter Than You

If your employee is smarter than you, one of the worst things you can do is micromanage them, writes Lolly Daskal, executive leadership coach and author of “The Leadership Gap.” Too often, she has seen managers become insecure when they see that their employees know more than they do. As a result, they try to assert their strength and overcompensate by micromanaging.

Micromanaging is frustrating for most employees, but it can drive smart employees nuts if they think you don’t trust them to do their work or want to hold their hand throughout the work process.

Of course, there is a significant difference between employees who are smarter than you and those who just think they are. Nina Zipkin at Entrepreneur points to a study that shows what employees think about their managers. About one-third of both male and female employees said they could do a better job than their boss (with the numbers skewing higher for male employees). Despite this, only 64 percent of men and 58 percent of women who thought they could do the job better said they are comfortable giving their boss feedback or broaching conflict.

Just because your employee thinks he or she is smarter doesn’t necessarily mean they will be disruptive or disrespectful.  

Intelligent employees can grow your department and company in ways you never expected, but you have to give them the resources and opportunities to do so. In the end, the really smart employees will push themselves and those around them up, while those who run on ego will continue to pull everyone down.

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