How to Handle It When You’re the Smartest Kid in the Class

Posted 10.12.2009

Obama2 The range of reactions to President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize has been really interesting to observe. Depending on which person or group you’ve been watching or listening to, you’ve had the opportunity to witness a full spectrum of emotional reactions from happiness to anger, from satisfaction to surprise. One that I think is out there but perhaps hasn’t been commented on so much is resentment.  There are those who resent the award because they say Obama hasn’t proven himself yet or that others are more deserving. (Obama himself essentially said as much in his remarks just a few hours after the Peace Prize announcement.)

I think there’s another reason that a lot of people resent the Prize going to Obama and it’s one that has a lot of parallels in countless organizations around the world. You’ve probably seen it yourself or have perhaps even been the subject of it. I’m talking about what I call the “smartest kid in the class” syndrome. Whatever you think about Obama, there’s not much point in debating that he is one highly intelligent guy and has had a lot of success at a very early age. He’s probably the most extreme example I could come up with of the “smartest kid in the class.” 

While we may not be around Nobel Prize winners on a regular basis, most of us have had some experience on one side or the other (or both) of this phenomenon.

With this in mind, I came up with some rules of the road for how “the smartest kids” should handle themselves when working with others who might feel intimidated and threatened by their success:
Take Your Foot Off the Gas – “Smart kids” typically see the answer before everyone else which allows them to go faster than everyone else.  If you’re a smart kid, it’s important to take your foot off the gas to allow everyone to catch up and understand the things that are patently obvious to you. They’re not to everyone else.  If you push through on your vision without others feeling comfortable about it, they’ll resent it and probably try to sabotage you.

Put Them at Ease – So, if the people around you are uncomfortable, it’s in your and everyone else’s interest to put them at ease. One of the best ways to do that is to…

Ask What They Think – When the answer is obvious, it’s difficult for smart kids to not just give it.  Pretty soon, everyone else starts to get annoyed. (Remember how you felt about the kid that always had his hand up as soon as the teacher asked a question?  The same dynamic applies in groups of adults.)  One of the best ways to avoid blurting out the answer is to get into the habit of first asking others what they think of the situation. Of course, when they share their views, it helps if you actually…

Listen – And by listening, I don’t just mean affirmative nods of the head and “uh-hmm’s”  while you’re waiting to give your answer.  I mean listening for nuance and the information you’ll need to ask a second round of questions that will help deepen your understanding of their perceptions, goals, motivations, definition of success, etc. 

Frame Your Solutions as Questions
– After you’ve listened deeply, you should have a better understanding of how to frame your solutions. This is the part where you’ll want to avoid saying, “OK, I hear you and here’s what I think we should do.” If you’re working with someone who likely feels threatened by your  talent and intelligence, try framing your solution as a question.  It should sound something like, “I think I understand where you’re coming from. What if we tried (insert your solution here)?” This approach gives the other party a greater opportunity to participate in the solution.

Share the Credit – And when it all works out great make sure you spread the credit around.  However,

Pay Attention to The Balance – You want to make sure that you’re also making requests of others and not just giving and giving and giving.  People who feel threatened are usually very sensitive to the balance of power.  While giving them the opportunity to participate and asking after their opinion are great strategies for taking the focus off of you and building relationships, you don’t want to overdo it.  Sometimes you just have to make the ask, give the answer or push something through.  The trick is finding the right ratio.

OK, I’d love to hear what you think.  Anyone out there ever been labeled the smartest kid in the class?  (I’m thinking there are a lot of you reading right now.)  How have you handled it?  On the flip side, what annoys the heck out of you about the smartest kids?  What should they be doing differently?