It’s Never “All About Me”


“You know the times you impress me the most are the times when you don’t even try.”

–Joni Mitchell

One of the common behavioural issues confronted by executive coaches are with people who are compelled to let everyone know they’re smart, or smarter than those around them. It’s a blind spot, and am sure they’d be appalled if told their behaviour was egomaniacal – but it often appears that way.

I attended an invite-only business roundtable not long ago, no more than 12 attendees, all reasonably experienced in their respective fields. The presentation commenced, and the entire time, one person asked so many questions and made so many comments that it became a dialogue between him and the presenter. The rest of us watched in collective amazement.

Did he know a lot on the subject matter? Absolutely he did, had a very good command and history, knew his facts.

Were his comments and questions good? Yes, for the most part, insightful, historical and interesting.

Nice guy? Seemed very friendly and well-meaning.

But all of those positives was negated by his verbal barrage, which palpably sucked much of the air out of the room. And everyone around the table could more than hold their own, all sharp and experienced peers.

As the session finally finished, he glanced around, gave a weak smile, mentioned that maybe he’d overdone it, and said sorry. A few heads nodded affirmatively. Too little too late. He simply could not resist letting others know how much he knew.

Another person I am coaching moves fast, focused on the work and has little patience. She’s a high potential who often gets chosen to spearhead special task forces and greatly enjoys being in the corporate spotlight. She also fancies herself as the smartest–or most insightful–person in the room. Which she may or may not be, but senior management wants her to tone it down.

The team she leads respects her, but none feel she can really develop or mentor them. She has a tendency to answer a question before it’s asked, and has little patience for those she feels are slower on the uptake. Is she smart? Yes. Wise? Not yet. Hopefully that will come over time.

All of us succeed on the backs of others, not through our genius.

Coaching advice to those who just can’t resist saying more than they should? Have a mechanism, a safety valve, close at hand. When the urge rises to verbally impress, use that mechanism to decline–whether writing a note to oneself while listening, doodling, twisting your hands or practicing a silent matra. But not rolling your eyes, twiddling your thumbs or looking bored and distracted. Anything other than nodding impatiently, or letting someone else know you’ve already reached a conclusion. Body language is part of it, the other part is keeping the tongue locked up between the jaws..

Self-restraint is learned behaviour, a necessary behaviour if and when you move up the ladder, or are a mother or father. Parents almost always know more than their child, but seldom make a point to say how much more they know. Why would they? It only causes harm.

Self-restraint separates the humans from the animals, a sign of maturity, and signals intelligence rather than ‘smarts’. (the presumptive GOP nominee is a good [or bad] example, with a self-restraint score sorely lacking..)

As Marshall Goldsmith said, “Being smart turns people on. Announcing how smart you are turns them off.”

So, next time you’re tempted to let others know your IQ, walk it back and listen even harder. When the opportunity arises, you’ll know.

But until then, nod, smile, and show some gratitude.

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