Lesson #5: Smart matters…but pushy trumps smart.

I’ve seen teams of very intelligent, highly qualified people under-perform because the group gets dominated by a single person or sub-group.

Peter Senge said this another way.  In Fifth Discipline (1990), he asked:

“How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 have a collective IQ of 63?”

Smart matters

I’m a believer in hiring smart people.

I know that’s like saying “I like to look both ways before crossing, or “I don’t run with scissors”. But, here’s what I mean.  To be most effective any selection system must distinguish three things:

  1. Does the person fit with the culture, mission and aspirational values of the company  (including a perceptible level of motivation or desire to contribute)?
  2. Does the person have the specific technical knowledge or skills required for the position?
  3. Does the person possess a high degree of general intelligence?

I intend to dedicate multiple blogs to #1, the culture topic.  Number 2 and 3 deal with hiring smart people.

“Smart” = “g” + “S”

More than 100 years ago Charles Spearman, a famous early researcher in psychology, found that any child’s grades across a variety of subjects were highly correlated.  He proposed the influence of some consistent underlying factor which he termed g for “general” intelligence or ability.

He tried to account for the variations in test scores by two factors.  The first was a factor specific to a particular mental task (or subject matter).  These were individual abilities that would make a person more skilled at a specific cognitive task (“S”).  The second was a general factor “g”  that governs performance on all cognitive tasks.

So Spearman suggested “S” or specific intelligence (learning) as well as the existence of what he called “the g factor” (where g stands for general intelligence.)

So when I say smart matters, I’m referring not just to subject matter expertise (specific knowledge) but the g factor (general intelligence).  A selection system should be able to determine both – yet the latter often goes unmeasured.  That’s an important point because you cannot assume that high S means high g.  We all know or have heard of highly educated people (high S) who are unable to deal with problems or challenges that require alternative or creative solutions (g).  Unfortunately, while S matters and will get you in the door for many jobs, most important problems at work require g.  A basic level of subject matter expertise, plus  a good dose of general intelligence (leading to effective decision-making, analytical thinking, enhanced reasoning, on the spot problem solving, lateral thinking) is what’s most required on the job on a day-to-day basis.

Give me a team of adequately qualified employees with high g factor, and we’ll leave your highly educated experts with average or lower g factor in the dust.

So it sounds like an easy solution: hire intelligent (high g) technically prepared (high S) team members and success is guaranteed right?

Wrong, because…

Pushy Trumps Smart

Ineffective group dynamics can wipe out all your efforts to “hire for smart” and can actually endanger the survival of the entire organization if the team with sub-par group dynamics  is a senior leadership team.  (See Rick’s Rule #3: “Your Leadership Team is a Fractal”)

Here’s what I mean by “pushy”.  I mean an un-self-conscious un-embarassable desire get one’s way.  Whether it’s bringing about or preventing a particular action, introducing a change, forcing a decision – whatever the goal– the behavior is clinging to one’s desired outcome with little or no desire to compromise or see another’s viewpoint.  Such a “no retreat / no surrender” damn the torpedoes approach can be commendable in cases of major ethical, moral life and death issues, but it’s an inappropriate approach to every decision.

For those interested in the psychological perspective, at its most extreme, this pushy personality type can make you wonder if these people might’ve shown borderline Asperger syndrome as kids.   They seem to lack the ability to send or understand nonverbal communication cues and show limited empathy with their peers.  As they mature although they may develop great acuity in a particular field (high S?) as well as nearly obsessive side interests, social and communication difficulties may persist.   It’s probably not  a pathology or disability to be cured, but this “social difference”, can be very challenging to work with and harmful to group outcomes.

While this personality is not extremely common, most people can recall working with at least one or two people like this.  They approach team process not with the goal of reaching the best decision for our team (or the company) but simply “winning” to get their way.  They subvert usual group dynamics because they seem to have little awareness of team norms, social cues, and are either not interested in the potential reactions to decisions or do not see evaluating social consequences as a key part of a rational decision.

Over time team members learn about persistence: defeat of the pushers idea is never final or complete.  An idea is never killed but merely goes dormant and will probably return undead at a later point.  Even in those cases where s/he is a minority opinion, pushy wins most of the time because s/he outlasts others who are unwilling to fight for every point (most take a “choose your battles” strategy or understand the give and take of social cues).

These behaviors clearly sub-optimizes the decision-making process, as you’re no longer benefiting from team problem solving and synergy…and it will only get worse as people withhold input and participate only the most important decisions to them.  Thus, pushy trumps smart because smart quits participating.

Prescription

If you have a person or person who fits these descriptors, and meetings are not actively managed to control his/her tendency to dominate – chances are you’re not benefiting from the collective abilities of the group.

So how do you avoid the situations where pushy trumps smart?

For it to be a problem you must have “pushy” on your team, so the first place to look is in the hiring decision.  Ideally your selection process is sophisticated enough that in your assessment (or reference checks) you’ll be able to identify candidates’ inability to play well with others – and you’ll hire for smart while avoiding pushy.

But if you suspect that you already may have a pushy team member whose keeping the group from achieving its potential, talk about it candidly and individually with others on the team.  If there is consensus that the group is not benefiting from collaborative problem solving, planning or decision-making, introduce a more formal structure into your meetings and have a trained  facilitator lead your meetings.

The facilitator will function as a much-needed gatekeeper (or “traffic cop”) who can:

  • Introduce and manage a more formal meeting or decision-making process
  • Help craft clear problem statements
  • Point out assumptions, as well as bad, wrong or absent data
  • Push for facts to back up statements or conjecture
  • Request diverse views and push for equal participation
  • Allow equal attention and credence to subject matter experts.
  • Provide regular feedback to the team on their meeting effectiveness.

Summary

Seek candidates who meet your technical requirements.   Assess and select based on general intelligence.  Be more vigilant (less sloppy) in how your meetings are conducted.    Otherwise the time and  effort you’ve put into building a top-flight team of competent, intelligent subject matter experts will be negated by a single pushy person with narrow expertise.    Because…

Smart matters…but pushy trumps smart.

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