I Really Am Smarter Than You

I Really Am Smarter Than You

By Thomas J. DeLong

Fall 2011 Soundings 12

Thomas J. DeLong is the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. From Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change Into Fuel for Success (Harvard Business Review Press). ©2011

When I was at Morgan Stanley, a colleague and I disagreed on whether we should hire another investment banker at a senior level. I was insistent that it wasn’t a good idea. My friend thought it was an excellent idea. Eventually the leaders in the investment-banking division decided to go ahead with the hire.

There was much celebration in the division because we had “stolen” a key banker whom we needed in a particular area of the business. I was not thrilled. I had lost the skirmish. I had argued hard in dissent and was outvoted. What is embarrassing as I look back on the whole incident is that from the day this new star hire joined the organization, I acted distant and aloof from him. I didn’t go out of my way to make him feel as if he was now part of the firm. I assumed that those who were so excited to have him would embrace him and socialize him into the firm.

Three months after he was hired, I heard rumblings that this banker hadn’t delivered on some clients who were supposed to follow him. I remember attending a partner dinner to which he was invited but didn’t show. Six months into this relationship, he went back to the firm where he had been for fifteen years. His sponsors were shocked and I’m sure embarrassed that they had invested so much without reaping any benefits.

The first thought I had immediately after I had heard the news was, “I told you so. I knew this would happen. I told you this would be the outcome before he ever joined.” I find myself feeling embarrassed and ashamed as I write this, but it’s the truth. I blamed the sponsors that it didn’t work out. I blamed the professional himself for not working hard enough to make the situation work. But of course, I didn’t blame myself.

Upon reflection, I think I actually sabotaged the lateral hire because it was more important for me to prove myself right—to look smarter than the others. It was more important for me to be seen a seer, as an insightful guru who could read people and the future and know what would play out before it ever did. It was more important for me to be right and prove others wrong and to blame others. I could have chastised myself for being too prideful to help socialize this new person into the firm; I could have taken a long, hard look at why I remained distant from him rather than helping him contribute his considerable knowledge and skills to the enterprise. But I did not.

The lesson: When we blame others for being “stupid” about something, we are able to portray ourselves as smarter than they are. High-need-to-achieve professionals often feel the need to be smarter than others to prove their own worth. In fact, they are often only smarter in their own minds; by telling themselves that their colleagues are dense, slow, and unperceptive, they elevate their own business intelligence. They are, of course, fooling no one with this blaming trick except themselves.

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