You can, in fact, be too smart for your own good, according to a study on what people really want in employees and bosses. Tip: Intelligence isn't it.
Science of Work

Study: Yes, you can be too smart for your own good at the office

You can, in fact, be too clever for your own good, according to a study on what hiring managers and direct reports really want in employees and bosses.

A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that being book smart didn’t necessarily lead to being seen as successful in the eyes of your peers and direct subordinatesAccounting for the effects of leader personality, gender, age, company, and country, researchers found that there’s a point at which the effects of intelligence produce decreasing returns in perceived good leadership.

Although intelligence does indeed matter to be an effective leader, there’s a point when your big brain starts to get old for your direct reports and the influence of your super-intelligence diminishes.

High intelligence doesn’t always lead to being seen as a great leader

By analyzing 379 midlevel leaders around the world — and their coworkers’ ratings of these leaders — the researchers found that “the relationship of intelligence to leader style is initially strongly positive; after hitting a peak, the relationship does not benefit in terms of a marginal difference and starts becoming negative.”

The leaders you remember long after you leave a job are the ones who inspire you, the ones who handled the red tape of bureaucracy so you could do your best work. The researchers called these leadership styles “transformational” and “instrumental,” and research has shown these styles to be the most effective ways to be a leader.

In the study, leaders with a higher intelligence than IQ of 120 had lower scores in transformational and instrumental leadership than their less smart peers.

The researchers were building off of previous studies that found that highly intelligent leaders can be bad communicators.

Some of their pitfalls? These cerebral leaders can come off as less accessible to their peers, detached from their organization, and socially aloof. They can also be too hard to follow. Their arguments can become too verbose, making “more sophisticated solutions to problems [which] may be much more difficult to understand.”

Maybe it’s not you, it’s them

The researchers concluded that there’s no one-size-fits-all level of intelligence in leadership because “the higher the mean intelligence is of a group, the higher is the optimal level of intelligence of the leader.”

To be a good leader, you have to be able to be understood by the people you’re leading. Sometimes, “I’m too smart for them!” may actually be the reason you got a bad performance review, because if you’re not speaking the language of your organization, the brainy, brilliant theories you put forth won’t be persuasive.

The study reminds us that being smart is only as useful as the people around you.