Letting Go of Your Need to Be the Smartest Person in the Room

One of the most common and damaging blind spots for a leader is the compulsion to consistently demonstrate that you are the smartest person in the room.

Many well-intentioned leaders don’t realize this bad habit affects them. The impact of what is often no more than one or two behavioral tics includes stifling creativity and innovation and derailing any hopes of developing a high-performance environment.

The challenge is to recognize your own smartest-person-in-the-room behaviors and replace them with a few simple habits that focus on drawing input from team members, rather than stifling it. By definition, blind spots are difficult to see, but a desire to improve your leadership effectiveness will help you self-diagnose and take some simple but powerful corrective actions.

Common Behaviors: Do Any of These Feel Familiar?

The final word. Leaders who struggle with smartest-person-in-the-room syndrome often operate with a false belief that being in charge means always having the answer. This can drive you to assert your opinion as the final word, and it teaches people to suppress their own ideas and wait for solutions from the person in charge. If you’re frustrated with your team’s lack of creativity or active discussion about ideas, perhaps you taught them to wait for the last word.

The eyes, face and voice say it all. Some leaders telegraph their smartest-person-in-the-room persona through verbal and non-verbal responses. I’ve observed senior managers portray what is perceived as disinterest or disdain for the commentary of team members by interrupting them in mid-sentence or maintaining a facial expression that seems to ask: “Why are you using up my valuable oxygen with this stupid idea?” While a leader may not intend to communicate disregard or disdain, team members will pick up on visible and audible cues. If your team members are less than enthusiastic about sharing new ideas and approaches, perhaps you’ve inadvertently shot them down too many times.

I’ll see you and raise you. A closely related cousin to the first two behaviors is the leader who listens to team input but fails to acknowledge good ideas. One top leader had the unique habit of responding to input with her own feedback in a seeming point-counterpoint battle that employees interpreted as either arguing or trumping their ideas. In reality, she was using an unrecognizable form of active listening to translate what she heard into her own words. But that’s not how her employees saw it.

Combating Your Own Smartest-Person-in-the-Room Syndrome

Ask more than tell. Questions are powerful leadership tools and much more effective than orders in most circumstances. Train yourself to respond to ideas with questions that help you and others better develop their ideas. Strive to understand before offering your own perspective.

Shut up and let others decide. While you never have to cede your right to veto an idea or approach, use this power sparingly. Through questioning and building upon the ideas of others, you can often encourage the modification or adaptation of someone else’s approach without throwing your weight around. If you must, use the line-item veto.

Look for the beauty in ideas, not the flaws. Some people see the beauty in an idea, while others find the flaws. A micro-managing boss sees the flaws and hammers people for changes to minutiae. An effective manager acknowledges the beauty inherent in ideas and focuses questions and efforts on realizing that beauty. A simple discussion around risks may be all you need to address potential flaws.

A Few Ideas For When Your Boss Doesn’t Recognize They Suffer From Smartest-Person-in-the-Room Syndrome

Resist the urge to argue. It’s tempting. It’s one of my own weaknesses and it’s often wrong. Take a deep breath, close your lips and think. If you must talk, ask clarifying questions. It never hurts anyone to seek first to understand.

Manage upside-down. If your boss is generally well-intended and receptive to team input, construct an effective feedback discussion with behavioral examples. Indicate the business or performance consequences of the smartest-person behaviors and suggest one or more of the previous techniques. Offer to observe and look for opportunities to apply these techniques. Agree on a mechanism to signal an improper behavior and suggest a different course on the fly.

It takes personal courage to offer feedback to your boss. Remember, the operating assumption is that you sense they are interested in strengthening their performance and growing as a leader. Some leaders will not take kindly to your feedback. Tread softly and if the ice is firm, proceed. If not, move on to the next option.

If the boss isn’t approachable, use judo. A little bit of child psychology can go a long way with a challenging boss. Start by positively reinforcing your boss’s ideas, then suggest approaches to strengthen those ideas. Of course, these approaches will match your original suggestions, but you’ll have reframed the idea as your boss’s.

Facilitate idea development and proactively discuss risk. A calm discussion will allow you to ask clarifying questions and—at the appropriate time—suggest an exploration of the risks. List them on a board or flip chart. The act of highlighting risks may be enough to gain cooperation from someone who believes they are always right.

The Bottom Line

Powerful internal drivers push some people to assert that their opinion is the right one. From compensating for a lack of self-confidence to falsely believing that being in charge means being right, this need to assert is a performance- and environment-killing habit. Learn to recognize your tendency to do this and use discipline to resist that temptation. Like reaching for a handful of almonds instead of the donut on the snack table, it’s difficult to do at first. If you work for the smartest person in the room, strive to be just a little smarter by managing the psychology and resisting the urge to argue. The effort is worth the potential improvement.

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Art Petty

Art Petty

Art Petty is a former software industry executive and now an executive and emerging leader coach, author and graduate management educator. He is creator of Pragmatic Institute’s Partner Learning Network online course, “Level-Up Power Skills: Influence, Lead and Develop Yourself.” He also writes the Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles and books. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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