Why Smart People Do Dumb Things
By Mortimer R. Feinberg
People of exceptional intelligence are a prized business asset. But as any manager of a budding or full-blown genius knows, there are pitfalls. One of the most common cries of the anguished manager in this situation is: "How could he have been so stupid?"
Why do smart people do dumb things? Having studied a wide assortment of weird decisions and actions by highly intelligent executives. I have formulated a principle: Strong intelligence seeks to subvert it-self.
This theory might help to explain acts of bizarre self-destruction like that of Stephen Chao, the high-flying president of Fox Television Stations and Fox News, who arranged for a male stripper to perform at a high level conference. Among those not amused were Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, National Endowment for the Humanities head Lynn Cheney, and Ru pert Murdoch, Mr. Chao's boss. Shortly after the stripper departed, Mr. Chao was fired.
This unfortunate episode illustrates the spectacular ingenuity with which the bril liant mind can subvert itself. Smart people sometimes turn their formidable intellectual armament against themselves - re sulting in behavior so strange that it is virtually inexplicable. When logic dictates a certain course, most people follow that course, having no sensible reason to do otherwise. However, the exceptional brain seems to work beneath the conscious level, to find plausible reasons to bypass logic.
Three of the most prevalent self-subverting mechanisms are recklessness, isolation, and feedback deafness. Powerful dynamics, especially when they coalesce.
When people of extraordinary brilliance form the palace guard of a company, the combined power of their intelligence can form an irresistible force, pushing the enterprise toward the pinnacle - or the precipice. One danger is their unwilling ness to admit the need to change. "When smart people all agree with each other about a plan," observes Mr. Wesley, "they're apt to stay with the plan too long, even after others have seen that the direction is wrong."
"That impatience," says Robert Shiver, CEO of Senses International, "can be a dangerous trap. Feedback is essential, no matter how brilliant or respected the originators of the ideas may be, or how high they stand in the organization."
Here's an instance of what Mr. Shiver is talking about. A highly gifted marketing executive for a beverage giant pushed through a product introduction that bombed. As top management sifted through the wreckage, it came upon copious warnings from the man's subordinates. "Didn't you get this feedback?" he was asked. "Feedback is for wimps," he replied.
How can you get the most out of your best and brightest while minimizing the effects of intellectual self-subversion? Here are some thoughts:
Give your top brains leeway in the ways in which they come up with their ideas, but not in the ways in which those ideas are judged. This can be a problem. Brilliant people are not always tremendously mature. They may sulk at having their propos als reviewed by those they consider their mental inferiors. But don't be intimidated. Be firm in subjecting all thinking, what ever its origin, to the same standards.
Bright people may resist structure, but they need it. Suspending the rules for your top brains is no favor to them. Apart from the fact that it makes them the target of resentment by their colleagues, it may encourage their most self-destructive, loose-cannon tendencies.
When smart people are supported by sound structure and candid comment, they are, in effect, even smarter.
Mr. Feinberg is chairman of a Manhattan consulting group.