The intelligence trap

Tammi Spayde

2016-03-29 Tammi intelligence trap

Being smart is important. But it’s almost never the most vital quality for success at work. And in the library profession—which emphasizes intelligence even more than most—this focus can lead us to undervalue other essential traits.

Think back to a time in your work life that you remember very fondly. To a successful project or a team you truly enjoyed working with. To a story about your job you love to tell. Really. Take a moment and conjure up that situation, because I’m going to make a prediction:

Your memory has nothing to do with highly developed professional skills or intellect.

If you’re still not with me, try thinking of a bad job experience. A really horrible day, a plan gone terribly awry. An anecdote you may also tell…but as a cautionary tale or horror story.

My bet? The failure in this case also has little to do with underdeveloped job skills. It wasn’t because someone lacked intellectual horsepower or a form wasn’t completed properly.

We select for skills, we fire for fit

The importance of emotional intelligence (EQ for short) at work, popularized by author Daniel Goleman in a book of that name, has been widely discussed since the 1990s. Even before then, successful leaders understood that interpersonal skills often factor very highly in a team’s success. That being said, we still tend to over-trust “hard data” in hiring and promotion decisions and minimize the importance of emotional intellect and personal qualities.

If you’ve ever had to fill out an HR form for an open position, you’ll know what I mean. Bullet after bullet describing the desired systems, software, techniques, certifications, qualifications, experiences, etc. But it’s rare to see one that lists some of the most important qualities for success:

  • Listens well
  • Accepts criticism with grace while learning from mistakes
  • Responds to necessary change enthusiastically
  • Can control emotions and remain calm under stress

We often expect these are qualities that reasonable, thoughtful adults possess. But we know that not everyone is reasonable or thoughtful. And yet we do not make the identification, support and recognition of these emotional skills part of hiring, development and assessment programs. Instead we focus on boxes that are more easily checked off.

We hire someone whose resume looks the most like our job description form. And then, months or years later, we realize that while they may have all the appropriate professional knowledge…it’s just not working. And whether they leave on their own or are asked to go, it’s rarely because they lack some type of technical skill. It’s because “They just weren’t a good fit.”

Staying on track

In his book, Preventing Derailment, Michael Lombardo speaks specifically to issues of managers who stumble and fall because they can’t make the transition from job skills to people skills. Or, as I like to think of it, who have been rewarded for IQ and now need to develop their EQ. But his methods and message are highly appropriate for anyone who simply wants to be more successful, period.

In his book he describes five behaviors characteristic of success:

  • Specific technical, functional, business knowledge required
  • Ability to discern cultural norms around what’s acceptable in an organization
  • Adaptability in a variety of settings
  • Understanding other people’s needs
  • Self-awareness and tolerance for other approaches

The first is clearly about “IQ-type” skills. But the other four? If I shared details about someone who was great at all those things you’d probably have no idea what their job role is. And yet…you’d probably think to yourself, “I’d like to work with her.”

Lombardo also discusses how new leaders tend to compensate for a lack of EQ-style skills by overemphasizing the IQ skills they are comfortable with—both in themselves and others. This is a tendency we can look for in ourselves, even if we’re not managing people.

Step one: be aware of EQ opportunities

I love working for libraries and with librarians. It’s one of my favorite things about being at OCLC. It’s a profession filled with smart, mission-focused people. And in many cases librarians have absolutely top-notch customer service skills and are called on to regularly handle complex interpersonal issues within an institution or the general public. It’s a hard job, not for the faint-of-heart.

But those skills may not be enough to get you where you want to go in your career. You may be the smartest person in the room at every staff meeting…but, as Lombardo points out, that’s only about 20% of the equation. Think of it this way: if success for you will involve other people, so should your skills and your training.

For now, keep an eye out for times when you notice yourself over-relying on IQ and undervaluing EQ. Study someone you think does this well. How do they listen? When do they focus on people rather than process and what does that look like?

I look forward to continuing this discussion in the future, and would like to hear any suggestions you have about how to create a team atmosphere that values emotional intelligence skills. Please share those thoughts on Twitter with #OCLCnext.