The Smartest One in the Room

Tips for you...and for dealing with you.

Whether you're the brainiac or the boss deciding how to make the most of one, intelligence can be a burden as well as a boon.

For example, meetings can be a nightmare. As the smartest person in the room, you've already understood He Who Loves the Sound of His Own Voice's point before he's taken his first pause to breathe. You don't need the re-explanation requested by He the Empty-Headed. You've arrived at the best solution without the interminable, mind-numbing, self-aggrandizing "sharing and processing of our team members' diverse perspectives so we can arrive at a collaboratively developed, consensus-based, non-hierarchical decision." You often feel like chastising co-workers with a "No, stupid!" but, because you can't afford to get fired, you shut up and don your best poker face. When you feel you can no longer restrain yourself, you couch your criticism more carefully than Ban Ki-moon opining about the Israeli-Palestinian problem: "That's an interesting point, and you may well be right. I'm wondering whether an even better approach might be... (insert your obviously superior idea). What do you think?"

The bosses and co-workers of employees with inflated IQs don't have it easy, either. For example, there's nothing like a Big Brain to trigger the just-beneath-the-surface Imposter Syndrome in others. And just imagine their insecurities if the resident genius lacks tact: In response to what other colleagues put forth as presumably good ideas or clever comments, your Einstein might roll his eyes, fail to repress a laugh, or worse.

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So, what are we to do?

Tips for the Brainy

Embrace your intelligence -- and find an employer that does the same. In today's egalitarian times, emotional intelligence is more often lauded. And, yes, a good employee requires more than intellectual horsepower. However, University of Delaware professor Linda Gottfredson, among others, has found in her research that IQ is the best predictor of employment success.

If you find that you must often dumb yourself down to get along in a workplace, consider polishing your resume. And look at workplaces likely to attract fine minds: think tanks, universities, biotech companies, the top levels of government and venture capital, and top investment-banking, law and consulting firms.

Embrace noblesse oblige. You did not earn most of your intelligence; rather, you were lucky enough to be born to the right parents. Sure, your hard work has helped, but if you had been spawned by airheads in a neighborhood filled with lackluster offspring, you probably would have been less exceptional. Karmic fairness requires you to repay the universe's largess by using your intelligence for a greater good than buying a fancy house, a chic car and weekly trips to the day spa. At the risk of sounding like a cleric, in your career and avocations ask yourself: How can I use my gifts to do the most good?

And when you encounter co-workers who are a few sandwiches short of a picnic, you have an obligation to, while not hiding your intelligence, preserve their self-esteem. For example, consider whether it would be wiser to flaunt your bright idea at a meeting or share it privately with the person who needs to know about it.

Give yourself a break. No one is smart all the time. You may be brilliant, but you're still human. You are going to say things that make even dim bulbs roll their eyes.

Tips for Those Who Work With the Brainy

Embrace your brainiacs. If you hire them, be proud that you are secure enough to follow a key rule from Management 101: Hire people smarter than yourself. And, having done that, make the most of your prize hire. Don't let politics force you to treat your Smart Ones the same as others. Put them in the most challenging roles. If you're worried that your Captain Cranium will dominate groups, consider assigning him to individual projects and having him submit results to the group for feedback.

Help your brainiacs develop their emotional intelligence. Your mentorship in this area may make the difference between that employee being the respected star of the team or the reviled know-it-all. If you, too, are not a tower of tact, invite your most emotionally intelligent employee to bring some one-on-one charm school to your facile but foot-in-mouth employee.

Decide how many Big Brains you need. Too many can make for additional disadvantages. Exceptional employees usually demand exceptional compensation, and, even if you pay up, they're the most likely to be wooed away by the next intriguing opportunity. (Smart Sams get bored fast, and other employers are eager to cure their boredom.)

Also, no matter how tactful they are, the smart can dispirit slower-thinking employees. Remember when your schoolteacher’s questions always spurred the same one or two kids’ hands to shoot up, leaving the rest of the class sticking their tongues out at them and internally feeling like dunces? Know-it-alls can put a similar damper on the workplace. So finding the right mix of employees is, of course, critical.

Marty Nemko is a contributing columnist for Kiplinger's and has been named "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Find more than 500 of his other published writings free at

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,