A shockingly high percentage of our client base has experience hiring someone who almost single handedly derailed their entire organization. Less the result of their own oversight and more accurately a reflection of the common belief that there is no downside to hiring smart people. However, even our most experienced and well established clients readily recall such an instance of making “the big mistake” when hiring for intelligence and ignoring other signals.
When it comes to hiring smart people, there is a common theme to every story: the surprise at the idea that a smart person would do something so incredibly dumb.
We begin to peel the onion by looking at the research. Researcher Richard West wrote about the concept of “bias blind spots” in the Journal of Social and Personality Psychology in 2012. As it turns out, the breadth of an individual’s bias blind spot was found to be associated with higher cognitive ability. West determined that such a bias was heavily related to personal overconfidence, a trait common in highly-intelligent individuals. Smart people are usually right. When they are wrong, however, they are really wrong and often fail to recognize the mistake in time to minimize the damage. This bias blind spot, or intellectual overconfidence, is the overarching theme for 3 of the most common mistakes made by big-brained individuals: playing outside their comfort zone, over reliance on strengths, and others assumption of their universal competence.
Smart people make mistakes because they have a need to move beyond their comfort zone, both in business and personally. Whether the purpose is the challenge itself or to test their ability to adapt or reroute accordingly given their intelligence, smart people are more likely to do stupid things when outside of their area of comfort. For instance, consider the former Attorney General of New York who successfully forced 10 of the largest investment firms on Wall Street to pay $1.4 billion dollars in fines, was elected governor, and then promptly used state email and an easily traceable bank account to hire call girls on a trip to the nation’s capital. Bias blind spot.
In other cases, smart people mistakes correlate with on the job tasks or, more specifically, over relying on individual strengths. A company that I advised hired a CEO with a track record of turning around struggling organizations. As his first order of business, he carefully assessed several family owned businesses within the same market with the intention of acquiring undervalued targets. After years of buying small competitors based on the metrics, the predicted return based on the numbers was not being realized. With a key strategy of growth by acquisition, he was hyper focused on the quantitative nuances of his plan but the failure to integrate culture led to inefficiency at best and sabotage at worst. After his release as CEO, the former executive was extremely candid in his realization that his strength with numbers led him to ignore his less competent areas, including change management and culture integration. Clearly a bias blind spot.
Finally, people make errors by assuming that smart people are competent in all areas, signaling the fact that large mistakes are not always directly the fault of intelligent individuals themselves. Sometimes people are overly-confident in their smart employees. Such was the case for a client who, while scrambling to mitigate a very expensive employee failure, told me, “when I gave her the project, even though it was outside of her expertise, I assumed that she’d be able to figure it out.” These supervisors assume that smart people are infallible and often assign overly challenging projects, then fail to monitor their progress. Complicating the situation, smart employees almost always accept these projects because their own bias blind spot leads them to believe that they can succeed despite being inexperienced with the responsibility. A bias blind spot within a bias blind spot.
In an effort to verify this repeatedly observed phenomenon in more quantifiable terms, we took a look at Psynet assessment results. Given the data of 263 executives, Dr. Dave compared functional intelligence with self-deception scores, scores that reflect an exaggerated and distorted self evaluation of one’s capabilities. Results showed a moderate correlation (.42), meaning that smart people are more likely to overrate their own capabilities in comparison to a typical employee. Big brains, therefore, are susceptible to big mistakes due to big bias blind spots.
Watch for our upcoming topics: aggressive risk taking, unadulterated mistakes, the secret of successful sociopaths and more.
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