Being clever is not the same as being smart

As we get more senior we are more likely to be rewarded for the results that come with listening and asking questions than we are for knowing the right answer

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Let’s get one thing straight: clever people are great. Everybody wants to be clever (and many of us think we already are) and most people want to work with individuals who are intelligent, educated, smart and quick-witted. We are rewarded for being clever. From the time we start school and even before we are praised for giving the right answer. As we enter the workplace the more senior people give us opportunities to develop and promote us for knowing what to do and how to do it. That’s how we progress and move up the ladder. But clever people can start to believe they know all the answers.

So they don’t learn to ask questions. And they don’t really listen, instead spending the time thinking about what they are going to say next and how they are going to phrase it beautifully. Or, worse, they just keep talking because if the other person can just be made to understand the world in the same way as the clever person surely they will change their mind. This will, at some stage in their career, limit not only their growth but that of their team and, probably, their business. As we get more senior we are more likely to be rewarded for the results that come with listening and asking questions than we are for knowing the right answer. Here are three situations in which being clever isn’t enough and what you can do about it.

1. You need to deal with a complex problem

Surely being clever is a good thing when you’re dealing with a complex problem? Well, yes, of course, but it’s not enough. The world is a very complex place and, unless you’re Google, you probably don’t know everything. Getting other points of view and seeing the world through a variety of eyes can mean the difference between success and failure.

However, this is hard and it’s especially difficult if you’re in a position of power because many people may be reluctant to speak up. It’s your job to “make” them. You can’t do this simply by saying “we have an open-door policy” or setting up a suggestions box. Instead you have to learn to listen hard. At a minimum this means learning to stay quiet, to ask great questions and to give people time to answer them. (Hint: “Don’t you think we should do XYZ?” is not a good question. It’s not even a question.)

2. You need to develop others

At some stage in your career and probably much earlier than you think it’s your job to develop others. Think about it: if you don’t develop the people below and around you then who is going to be able to take over your role when you are ready to move on? Being clever is useful here because you will have knowledge that you can pass on. But knowledge isn’t enough – you have, over time, built up a way of thinking or schema that is probably so deeply a part of you that you hardly even recognise it any more.

Try reflecting on the questions you ask yourself to define the problems and challenges you face and the solutions you create. Then ask your people these questions. They may not always get the “right” answer but it will help them to build their abilities and, you never know, they may even come up with better solutions than you would have.

3. You need other people to get things done

Unless you have absolute power (and if you do then you really don’t need to be reading articles like this) then, no matter how great your idea is, you will need others to implement it. Generally speaking that will mean persuading them that the idea is worthwhile, achievable and in their best interest.

To do this you need to understand where they are and what they are thinking. This is why listening skills are a key component of what the FBI teaches their crisis negotiators: they understand that if you want people to change their behaviour you have to understand why they currently behave differently. Once you understand this you can then communicate effectively, touching on the facts and emotions that are important to your audience rather than simply sharing the facts.

People don’t make decisions based simply on facts – if they did nobody would smoke or eat food that’s bad for them.

There’s nothing wrong with being clever. We need clever people but clever involves more than simply knowing the right answer – listening effectively and asking great questions gives you insight into how others think and can help you and them continue to learn and succeed.

Dawn Metcalfe is the managing director of the management consulting company PDSi.

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