How to Manage When Everyone Thinks They’re the Smartest Person in the Room

Jun 2, 2015
5 Min Read

So you’ve got a team made up of smart, driven people. That’s a good thing, right? Of course it is – except when each of those people thinks he or she is the smartest one in the room and wants everyone to know it.

It can be tough to keep discussions moving when everyone thinks they have incredibly important things to say (and say and say) on a topic, and it can be challenging to get a team of big egos to work together productively.

Here’s how you can help keep a team of smarty-pants moving forward.

Be clear about when debate needs to end. As a manager, you should welcome input and discussion – but on teams where everyone thinks they’re the smartest one in the room, there’s some danger of getting mired down in discussion and debate. When you need the debate to end and need everyone to move forward in the same direction, be clear about that. It’s okay to say directly, “I’ve really appreciated hearing everyone’s thoughts on this. I’m going to take everyone’s input, think it over, and come back with a decision later this week.”

Model humility and openness for your team. This may mean that you need to let go of your own need to be the smartest one in the room. Sure, this may not describe you – but be honest with yourself about whether it does. Many managers feel like they need to demonstrate their value by having all the answers – or at least by having more answers than anyone else on their team does. But in reality, “having all the answers” doesn’t even make the top 10 list of important qualities for a manager to have. It’s important that you know how to get to answers, yes, but it’s perfectly okay for you to seek out others’ input, admit when you don’t know things, and want to take time to mull over problems without knowing the solution right off the bat.

Consider making humility an explicit value for your team. Formally articulating that humility is a team value, and talking about what that does (and, crucially, doesn’t) look like in practice can help call out behavior that’s counterproductive and reinforce the behaviors that you want to see more of. For example, you might talk as a team about how the lack of humility can get in the way of moving conversations and solutions forward (particularly on teams where everyone loves hearing the sound of their own voices in meetings). You can also give feedback when you see someone letting their ego get in the way of productive relationships or conversations (“I noticed you seemed reluctant to let Jane have a say in that conversation – what was going on there?”), as well as when you see someone doing a good job of demonstrating humility (“I really appreciated that you were open about not having the answer Bob was asking for and that you were candid about how tough the problem is”).

Give direct feedback where appropriate. If you have a staff member whose ego is alienating others, do the person the service of talking to her about how she’s being perceived. You don’t want people to hide their intellect – that’s part of why you hired them – but you do want them to care about relationships with others. After all, it’s no good being the smartest person in the room if no one will listen to you.

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