The Smartest-Person-in-the-Room Complex
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A few weeks ago, I came across one of those LinkedIn stories that pop up in everyone’s feed. Basically, it was an advice column dedicated to answering a question from someone who asked if he should leave a company that made stupid decisions despite him telling everyone what the right answer was. The comments section of the article was particularly one-sided as everyone sided with this individual, suggesting that if the company’s leadership team had such big egos that they never listened, he ought to find somewhere else to work.
I find this type of response maddening.
There is a prevailing belief, particularly in the tech industries, that coming up with the right answer is the hard part. While I certainly think that it is challenging at times to know the right answer, I would argue that knowing what to do is at best only half the solution. And people who believe they are the smartest person in the room are doing their companies a disservice by not realizing their jobs are not finished when the idea is conceived.
When you work on very talented teams, you will frequently know the answer to whatever the problem is well before the rest of the organization. This lends itself to constantly whining about why it is so hard to get things done in your company. You might find your team bemoaning the process, or maybe you ascribe the problems to an executive team that is disengaged or doesn’t have the requisite technology background to pull the right strings. Whatever the specific root cause you identify, your team will generally find that blame lies somewhere else in the organization that is too apathetic or too ignorant to just follow your ideas.
When these conversations pop up, you should look a little closer to home. It is possible you have Smartest-person-in-the-room Complex.
When this happens to my teams, I frame the scenario up a little differently. We all know companies have products and sales. We can probably rattle off the names of a few companies that failed despite having the best product. In essence, they had difficulty selling their products. Along those same lines, we all also know companies whose products are utter crap but that manage to sell a bunch. This is because success is predicated on the existence of both products and sales. One without the other will not yield success.
It is the same with ideas. The idea is the product, and your ability to articulate the idea and have it adopted by other people is sales. When you come up with the right answer, you only have half of the solution.
Selling your idea, though, is not always easy, and for technology-oriented people it can seem like an unnecessary chore. Most engineers are brought up to think that everything is decided on the merits of the design. Ideas, therefore, should be consumed based on their merits. But in a corporate environment where everyone has an opinion, which ideas win?
The engineers out there wrongly conclude that their company was just too stupid to listen to them. They think that the people who actively politic within the organization are peddling snake oil. They use terms like “manage up” as derogatory descriptions of people who spend more time than they deem necessary selling their ideas.
But all too often this type of behavior is merely a self-defeating means of absolving the individual of their responsibility to see their idea through from conception to consumption.
When you have a great idea, you need to spend time making sure that your target audience buys into your brilliance. Is it that they don’t like your idea? Or maybe they don’t understand it? Maybe their assumptions are different than yours. It could be that they know something you don’t know. It might even be that they are emotionally attached to a different solution. Whatever the reason, you need to uncover it, because if you don’t know your customer, you surely won’t be successful selling to her.
The challenge here is that knowing your customer requires that you spend as much (if not more) time asking questions than you do talking. That’s right – you need to ask questions when you are selling your ideas. You need to meet people where they are rather than waiting for them to arrive where you are. So many times I have seen people talking over their audience’s head because they are playing 3 or 4 moves ahead. And contrary to what you might think, this doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you look disconnected.
The other mistake I see technical people making is thinking that everything is a logic problem. When someone throws up a roadblock, you think you can reason your way around it. If only they knew more, they would surely side with me! But logic isn’t going to move people off of emotional positions. You need to set aside your need to be right and win the argument so that you can actually accomplish the real end goal: getting your idea adopted by someone else. Don’t win the battle out of spite only to find that it cost you the war.
Rather than push your idea and match every point with a counter point, you should ask open-ended questions. Find out what the objection behind the objection is. Only then can you craft the right strategy to sell your idea.
And don’t think that your idea is going to be sold in a single meeting. Most major decisions take time to make. Rarely is there a meeting where a decision is made fully in that room. There is typically work that happens before and after the meeting that leads to a decision. So take careful stock of where you are in the sales process, and then make a sober decision about whether to push forward or regroup and try again. Sometimes the setting makes all the difference. You might find that someone who is extremely obstinate in a room of people softens when approached 1:1 later on.
Understanding that selling your idea is a journey also means you can strategize and be a bit more clever. If your company is prone to consensus-based decisions, it means that people will tend to go with the crowd. In these cases, you might line up one or two supporters ahead of time. Their vocal support in a meeting is oftentimes sufficient to get people to vote with the momentum.
All of this might seem like unnecessary work. You might roll your eyes and utter “Politics.” And if you do, check your own motivation. The end goal is not coming up with an answer; the real objective is to act on that decision. If you discount the people part of taking action, you likely aren’t as smart as you think you are. And doing only half the job means you are probably only half as valuable as you think you are.
Put differently, what good is it being the smartest person in the room if no one hears you?