I confess to having not used the descriptor “smarty pants” since sometime before I turned 11, but I was reminded of it the other day in a Wall Street Journal article on the potential nomination of economist, Larry Summers, to the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve.
In describing Mr. Summers’ past accomplishments and credentials for a potential Fed nomination, the article also pointed out some of the negatives swirling around him:
“But to his detractors—of which there are also plenty—he is an overbearing smarty pants who could be a bull in the collegial Fed china shop.”
“He’s not a very self-aware person,” said Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician who worked with Mr. Summers at hedge fund D.E. Shaw during the Bush administration. “He’s incredibly aggressively competitive, in a kind of…high-school debate champion kind of way.”
Most of us have very little real understanding of how our behaviors impact others. Some of us resemble Ms. O’Neil’s description of Mr. Summers as not very self-aware.
We cruise through our days secure in our view of our importance and convinced that our presence lights up every room, enlightens our colleagues and brings joy and prosperity to our teams and organization.
Well, perhaps the enlightenment we create isn’t so great or the joy quite as profound as we imagine.
By all career measures, Mr. Summers has the gifts and juice to back up his alleged style. However, for many of us, we might just be our own worst enemies in fighting career advancement. Don’t let the “Smarty Pants” persona be the issue that holds you back from reaching the next level.
5 Success Tips–Just in Case You Might be the Office Smartypants:
1. Shut-Up for a Day. While it may require superhuman effort, spend a day of meetings and interactions with your mouth clamped shut. Resist the urge to show everyone the errors of their ways and the flaws in their logic or facts.
2. Embrace the Silence in Your Mind. While much like the reaction of the people who had never experienced darkness nor viewed the stars in Asimov’s classic sci-fi story, Nightfall, you might be frightened of the sudden noises you’ll hear in your brain during your day of semi-silence. These are the unique voices, ideas and thoughts of your co-workers. Now, all you need to do is to make sense of these foreign invasions to your sacred space.
3. If You Must Talk, Ask Clarifying Questions. While you might be greeted with stunned silence from your team members and co-workers, they’ll eventually catch on to the fact that you’re asking a question, and you might just be surprised with the answer.
4. If You’re the Boss, Practice Framing Issues Neutrally. The boss’s opinion is a sledgehammer that biases the team and puts a lid on creativity. Instead of describing the conclusion, highlight the issue without expressing an opinion and see where your team members take it. If needed, encourage them to frame it both positively and negatively and develop alternative solutions.
5. Repeat the Above Every Day For the Rest of Your Career/Life.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I love smart people who have the self-awareness and the self-confidence to help everyone around them grow a bit smarter. These people view every situation as an opportunity to learn and perhaps to teach, but not to debate. It’s time to shed the overbearing smarty pants approach.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.