Before you align yourself with a colleague for a team project, you'll want to make sure he or she is an intellectual asset.
So, how can you figure out the smarts of a colleague without having a consulting PhD? I shouldn’t be giving this away, but the basics are actually so simple that anyone willing to keep her eyes glued and ears open to another person can figure out that person’s basic work smarts. Quickly and easily. By testing and watching for three simple behaviors.
But first, does it really matter how smart that person is? You bet your sweet bippy it does. You want to know whether you can trust his advice, whether he’ll have much to add to a new team project, whether he can be counted on to meet his objectives, whether he can accept added responsibility, and even whether he’ll make an effective manager.
Before I lay out my secret, remember this: intelligence is far more likely to be a continuum. It’s not a now you have it, now you don’t affair. Furthermore, as Roger Schank, the computer and intelligence professor has written, real experts have a great many stories to tell in a particular area of knowledge. But on top of that, they’ve got their stories indexed well enough in their brains that they can find the right one at the right time to help someone resolve a problem. Indeed, our brains, like computers, are indexing and retrieval systems. So, the expert is someone who has a massive indexing system in one or more disciplines, and can figure out and retrieve the information needed relevant to the situation at hand. Same processes as the ordinary person. Just a lot better at it. So what you’re trying to figure out in an assessment is whether the colleague is “better at it” or not.
Three Secrets to Assessing Intelligence
People know a lot. They know how to fix their breakfast and work the new espresso maker. They know what flavor of ice cream their kid likes. They know how to drive their car and run their computer. They know how to follow the directions their friends give them and they know how to tell their frustrations and their wants to their friends. They know how to get to work on time and what they need to do to keep their boss happy.
Intelligence is bound up in all these activities. But when we’re observant, we recognize differences in the intelligence of people in all the above and a lot more. We can readily figure out these differences of intelligence by noticing…
…who understands us more easily. Head-nodding and those “um-hums” can’t really be trusted to tell us that the person understands what we’re saying. And sadly, parroting back or even paraphrasing doesn’t necessarily indicate they’ve understood what we’ve said. As a general rule, when someone tells me they “understand,” I recognize the statement typically means little to nothing. It’s just a “spacer.” After all, communication breakdowns run more than 50% all of the time. And that’s reality. The only accurate way to get at that is to listen to certain things they say in response to what we have told them. Learning how to check understanding by means of action implication questions is easily the best approach for mutual understanding at work — and even at home — when done tactfully.
…who can fill in the blanks and figure things out without instruction. The people who figure things out and get done what they’ve never done before are actually engaged in creative action. It isn’t that they inherently have some property that others don’t have. It isn’t the presence or absence of a brain feature, but how they’re run. Schank nails it when he writes that what differentiates smart from stupid is the way in which the processes that employ (brain) features are run. Smart, effective people are used to going on data-finding trips in their brain and they’ve become experts at searching for data from the stories of experience they’ve stored away, labeled and indexed. They inevitably have spent time mulling over their experiences and that creates labels that can be seen again in memory.
I still remember my dissertation advisor writing in the pages that I was “still muddling.” He meant that I had a lot of information but couldn’t decide how to use it, so I was regurgitating it over and over again in the chapter, until finally I got it straight. But the people who figure things out from their past experiences gradually build a reputation for figuring things out without instruction. It’s an exceptional aspect of intelligence to be able to find experience stories that, at first glance, are not related to the current situation. And boy oh boy, do managers ever want them around! When the boss moves on to another company, he goes back to these folk and poaches them from his old firm.
…who needs to be led by the nose every step of the way. These are the grinds that every company needs until some bright techie figures out the software to replace them. It’s the grinds in this technological age that end up on the street. And it isn’t that they lack intelligence. In 95% of the cases, it’s that they haven’t extended their intelligence, their thinking processes, and so they’re waiting for someone to take them by the paw. They don’t mull over their failed and successful experiences, don’t label them in their memory, and haven’t extended their brainpower to learn how to search. As a result, their initial search comes up with nothing and they quit Googling. And they’re little more than dead wood.
Once more, the simplicity of this very basic model for assessing intelligence is not nearly as simple as you might think. It’s simple to understand, but not so simple to do. The model readily gets caught in the knowing-doing gap. It takes time, for example, to learn to put observation of others front and center. Most people pay attention to what others do wrong, but miss what they do right. So figuring out what a person is doing right, like actually understanding or filling in the blanks readily, is not an automatic behavior. It takes a shift in observational behavior.
But the people who are most successful take steps to minimize the knowing-doing gap for assessing their colleagues. They know that colleagues can make or break them. As a result, they can figure out what a guy brings to the party and what he can do to support their work and their career.
Roger C. Schank, Tell Me a Story
Dan Erwin, PhD, is a specialist in performance improvement. Over more than 25 years he has coached nearly 500 officers, executives, and managers from top American corporations by means of his very original, cutting-edge development program. Shockingly, you can't Google his name prior to 2008 — due to the demands of his clients. He blogs at danerwin.typepad.com, and tweets at twitter.com/danerwin.