Stupidity Is Clear, Genius Is Not

Stupidity Is Clear, Genius Is Not

Some advice for minimizing your instances of stupidity.

True story: Several years ago I was the young president of an insurance company that was doing well except for one of our divisions, which had not grown in years. Knowing that this division had outstanding market potential that wasn’t being tapped, I met with the division’s vice president, who was several years older than I, to encourage him to conduct a market analysis and develop a strategic plan for capitalizing on the growth opportunity. I was met with resistance as he lectured me with increasing volume that I didn’t have enough experience and didn’t understand his business. He went on to say that he had done everything possible to grow market share and there was nothing more he could do. He capped off the discussion by yelling at me, “Don’t bug me, damn it—I’m just too busy to plan!

Everybody loves a good story about stupidity. Obviously this vice president didn’t know how stupid he was being and thought his method was genius. But it was obvious to others that if he made even modest changes in his division he could have turned it around. And he would have retained his job.

Unfortunately, this happens too often in business, which is not so funny. Let’s face it: We are quick to recognize the stupidity in other people’s work, but often fail to see the stupid things we are doing ourselves. Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning has studied the phenomenon of the lack of awareness of one’s own incompetence. Called the Dunning-Kruger effect, Dunning has proven that we fail at self-assessment and often believe that we are far more intelligent and capable than we actually are. In fact, his studies show that 40 percent of us think that we’re in the top 5 percent of the intelligence spectrum.

Overconfidence can have terrible consequences in the workplace. More people, especially those in management, need to be aware of their own weaknesses and shortcomings. Admit that sometimes you don’t know all the solutions or details or risks, or even all of the problems. The odds are that there are quite a number of “unknowns” in your organization, and therefore it’s possible to act stupid without knowing it. So here’s some free advice.

Recognize your own shortcomings

Don’t rely on self-assessment; instead, find and listen to mentors who are willing to give you honest advice about your work performance and shortcomings. Seek out feedback from others who work for you and who supervise you, and listen to what they have to say without becoming defensive. Conduct surveys among yourselves on each other’s performance as well as from customers and employees. The bottom line is this: Take a lesson from the stupid vice president and don’t trust yourself to recognize your own shortcomings or stupidity.

Look for genius in others

If you are open to the possibility that you just might not be the smartest person in the room, then you are more likely to see the genius in others. This, too, can have tremendous consequences in the workplace, but in a positive way.

This is the irony: If you aren’t the most intelligent one on the team, can you really judge or recognize the superior performance of others? It’s easy to pick out poor performers when you outperform them. But when people are more competent than you are, then you may not see or understand the genius in their thinking. As Dunning says, “Genius hides in plain sight.”

History has proven that geniuses were not recognized by their peers. John Alexander Newlands was laughed at by the scientists of his day when he developed the first periodic table. The Wright brothers were scorned for their silly flying machines. The idea of personal computers in people’s homes was initially dismissed.

All geniuses aren’t inventors; many express themselves artistically. The Beatles were rejected many times before they cut a record deal. Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was rejected 15 times before it was published. It’s said that Walt Disney was rejected 302 times before he secured financing for Disney World. In all of these cases, genius was hiding in plain sight.

Because their minds work differently than the majority, geniuses may not feel comfortable or fit into the corporate setting. People with extraordinary intelligence slip by human resource screenings that we use to find the “right” people. Or they aren’t hired because they don’t interview well. And when they do get jobs, they can easily see the error in the ways of their managers and often offend their boss by voicing their opinions too strongly. Or they give up and quit.

But if you want breakthrough ideas and innovation in your organization, you must make more room for diverse viewpoints and opinions. Steve Jobs, after all, was ousted by Apple’s board of directors in 1985.

Truly innovative ideas and genius thinking are found in people who ask unusual questions and think differently, so they might not fit into the box that is our company’s culture. As Apple’s “Think Different” commercial produced in 1997 said:

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

If you can overcome your own stupidity and open your mind to the possibility of the hidden geniuses in your organization, you, too, may just be one of those crazy people who changes the world.

Mark W. Sheffert ( is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.