The Downside of Intelligent Employees

“In the republic of mediocrity, genius is dangerous.” ~Ingersoll

Growth in many industries continues to be problematic and corporate leadership reactions oscillate between frenetic (sometimes insanely so) cheerleading and erecting more and more elaborate smoke and mirrors to hide reality.  In short, things aren’t really going so well in most companies, so leaders sigh in relief when their quarterly employee retention rates show little of the exodus of either Baby Boomers or high potentials.  Phew!….Good news, right?

Quite the contrary, in fact….

For companies struggling to find their new way in an increasingly commoditized society, if their voluntary retention rates remain at historically constant rates in the high 80s or 90s, there may be reason to worry.  Quite simply, they may not be getting the influx of new ideas and diverse perspectives necessary to seize and leverage competitive advantage.

“But our employees are amongst the brightest in the industry,” argued one executive.  “That’s a good thing, right?”

He has a point.  Having intelligent employees is critical for any organization. But intelligence does not necessarily translate to productivity or innovative.  In fact, it can be a real detriment to organizations who don’t fully understand the benefits (and risks) of what they’ve got.

The potential downside of intelligence? Particularly in the midst of tough economic times, the intelligence of employees may actually lead to lowered productivity and less innovation.  The reason is precisely because these employees understand all too well the tendency for organizational panic when growth is slipping.  And understanding this, they may be less inclined on their own to suggest or promote new ways of doing things for fear of punishment if new ideas don’t work out.  The fear of failure is often heightened by the very intelligence organizations are seeking!

Like it or not, levels of fear are often greatest amongst those employees with the cognitive ability to contribute most to your organization’s strategic problem-solving.  Put bluntly, the very employees (worker bees and leaders) who can help you turn the ship have seen the iceberg ahead and are now manning the lifeboats!  They haven’t abandoned ship quite yet, but unless you recognize and react to this situation, they’ll be gone at the moment of impact! 

But, it’s not a hopeless situation.  After all, the heart of change leadership is understanding and managing fear within your organization.  That can be a daunting task, if one does not prioritize one’s reaction to the multitude of fears that might exist.

Follow the Pareto Principle of change leadership.  Simply put, focus 80% of your attention on the brightest 20% of your workforce.  Note, I did not say the top 20% of your organization’s hierarchy.  Your best and brightest may include some of your top leaders, but undoubtedly is found scattered throughout the organization.  So, here’s what you do….

1)    Identify your best and brightest.  There are lots of tools for doing this, from analyzing (in a scientifically valid way) the social and knowledge networks of your organization, categorization of skills, experience (NOT TENURE) and educational backgrounds, and the strategic development of critical organizational competencies.

2)    Target your development efforts strategically.  Throw development dollars and energy toward those individuals or organizational competencies focused on your competitive advantages as a company.

3)    Focus on your culture.  Insist on making your organization one that insists on performance, innovation, and that rewards strategic change efforts (successful or failed).  Remember, overcoming a fear culture (poison for your most intelligent employees) is critical for releasing employee willingness to experiment, innovate, and excel.

Without taking these three steps, the cultural impetus is toward conservatism, which rarely leads to innovation and growth.  In fact, the natural tendency in conservative organizations is to embrace mediocrity, because excellence involves risk and risk embraces failure and failure breeds fear.  So, eliminate fear by welcoming failure (intelligently achieved), risk, and excellence.  It’s the antidote to economic struggles and leads to growth.

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