Am I as dumb as I feel?

A senior and seasoned executive I know pretty well confided in me more than once that a critical, sharp-tongued person to whom he had to answer at work made him question his own intelligence.

“He makes me feel dumb. I know I’m not dumb. But when I try to explain something it’s like my brain turns to jelly.”

It turns out that according to academic research, my friend might not have just felt less intelligent than normal when in the presence of the difficult executive — he might actually have been so.

A recent opinion article in the New York Times written by Annie Murphy Paul titled “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” discussed research showing that intelligence isn’t static and that social forces can significantly impact test scores, academic achievement and I.Q.

The article references work by various psychologists, including Joshua Aronson, an associate professor at NYU. Murphy Paul wrote:

“Professor Aronson calls the doltishness induced by an uncomfortable social situation ‘conditional stupidity.’ We should use that insight to create the conditions for brilliance.”

The author focused her attention on the research’s implications for childhood education, such as the importance of educators putting in place social environments in which children can excel.

However, the concepts outlined in the article also serve as a good reminder for managers and team leaders.

We typically hear about the importance of creating positive work environments in which employees feel valued and secure to foster creativity and risk taking and increase morale.

The research discussed in the New York Times article adds that a company’s social environment also affects the level of cognitive ability at which employees function.

Managers should ensure they’re creating environments in which team members are given the right to feel intelligent, to enable them to think and contribute to the fullest extent of their intellectual abilities.

An obvious step is to not tolerate dismissive, condescending or belittling attitudes – i.e., essentially the type of behavior that tripped up my friend.

Another is to embrace the adage “compliment in public and criticize in private.”

Less obvious I think (and maybe harder to implement because of prevailing mindsets) is not allowing people to be boxed into role stereotypes.

Think of someone from the finance department who’s in a meeting during which the conversation takes an unscheduled turn when a bunch of marketers in the room start brainstorming new marketing messages. The finance guy might conceive of a great contribution, but it’s less likely to happen if he’s been conditioned to believe that people in finance jobs aren’t creative.

Enlightened management should not only encourage the sharing of opinions and ideas but should also attempt to break down mental barriers that prevent them from occurring in the first place.

That includes role stereotypes, which are commonly joked about in the workplace. By words and example, managers should encourage the idea that a person’s abilities aren’t defined by his/her job or department.

The problem is that stereotypes about ability – as the psychology research indicates – tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In a world where headcount is stretched thin, technical complexity is spiraling upwards and companies count on individuals to contribute ever-higher rates of productivity, there’s a tremendous onus on managers to maximize human resources. Achieving this requires letting those humans be as intelligent as possible.

6 thoughts on “Am I as dumb as I feel?

  1. I’m completely supportive of this. While I don’t currently have any direct reports, I can say all of my immediate management help facilitate these practices, and I’m certainly grateful for that. Makes for a healthy work environment, for sure.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ashely. Sounds like you have a great work environment. I’m sure you help make it a positive environment for co-workers in general (regardless of whether they’re direct reports or not).

  2. While I agree we shouldn’t box people into stereotypes based on their roles, it’s tough to avoid without any further information. Part of the responsibility falls on the individual himself or herself. So if that “finance guy” wants to be seen as creative, he needs to seed that perception so that he will be seen differently.

    Likewise, enlightened management will take the time to get to the whole person — not just the role the person is in. As an example, I got to know a former colleague who was sitting in an admin’s desk and was an executive’s personal assistant. Without spending time with him, I would never have guessed he earned a college degree and had graduate school aspirations. Now he’s a manager at a major studio while pursuing his MBA part-time.

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