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Smart people aren’t always smart together

I have met lots of smart people in organisations. Individually, they are good people, have great ideas and genuinely want to contribute. Put them in the same room together and somehow they aren’t as smart as a collective. Is it just me or have you seen that as well?


Common symptoms I see include:

  • Not achieving what could be achieved collectively
  • No decisions or poor decisions
  • Conversations that look like a ping pong match (ideas just goes back and forth)
  • Going around in circles or recycling the same problems over and over
  • Some people being silenced or not heard
  • People talking over and at each other
  • Meetings to prepare for meetings, meetings to talk about the next meeting, meeting to talk about the last meeting we just had
  • False agreements/commitments – people say yes on the outside, no on the inside


So then I see groups trying to overcome these symptoms by putting in structures and processes such as pre-meeting agendas, rules of engagement, action lists and assigning names. I’ve even seen people rate the meeting at the end. All very helpful. But not enough.

Even with the structures and processes, it’s the actual interaction that make a group of people smart together or not. Here are some behaviours I have seen, admit to doing and experienced:


  • We make assumptions based on what we already know or the first few words spoken by others (see previous post: Assumptions: The Silent Assassin)
  • We are not really listening – we nod and make acknowledging sounds but we’re listening to respond, defend or attack
  • “Yes, but…” – a common version of the above
  • We become reactive – defensive, protective, dismissive or quiet when conversations don’t go our way
  • We get stuck on our perspectives – can’t see other perspectives or put ourselves in others’ shoes
  • We think we know better than anyone else or have all the answers
  • We blame it on them, that “they’re not on the same page” or “they just don’t get it”
  • We don’t notice the ineffective or damaging dynamics at play or don’t do anything with it
  • We fail to realise the impact we are having on others or don’t adapt to improve the impact (see also: The Double Edged Sword of Being Smart as a Leader)


“How Egos Distort the Way We See Each Other” a short HBR clip by Heidi Grant Halvorson explains how a threat to our ego distorts our perception and increase the likelihood of misunderstandings. In the case of being with a group of smart people, our ego is threatened if there is a possibility of being outsmarted by smart colleagues - if our ego is strongly tied to being smart. Managing our egos in these situations as well as watching out for our distorted perceptions seem like critical skills to develop for us to be smart together, not just on our own.


It’s time we upgraded our abilities to be collectively smart, not just be smart on our own. Being smart together is an evolution – organisations thrive, waste less of their talent and we might even solve more of the world’s big hairy problems. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear.


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