[This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post on March 29, 2017]
We’ve all come across people who love to show off how much more they know than others. They’ll use every opportunity to showcase their intellectual depth and knowledge of all things arcane and esoteric to others. They will stop others in meetings and ask questions not to get insights but to show how much they know. Their arrogance and pride emanates from their smartness. They believe (though wrongly) that they can influence people through their intellectual prowess.
Armed with a battery of statistics they will throw data which will suddenly catch people off-guard. Their whole objective being to show off knowledge, make people look small and take charge of the conversation. They are full of themselves and usually quite closed to others’ opinions, ideas and feedback. If anyone challenges them, they take it personally and consider it as an attack on them.
They don’t hesitate to belittle and dismiss others who are less knowledgeable, and even those who are competent but generally quiet.
Sometimes they do really have specific subject matter expertise, but often they are information magpies—gathering bits and pieces of knowledge on different subjects and then packaging themselves as experts.
They feel that their opinion on everything matters, whether it’s art, politics, finance, economy, environment or leadership. Even if the sum total of their knowledge is an amalgamation of a bunch of Google searches and has no real depth, they will assume the air of world-renowned experts. Heck, if they actually met a world-renowned expert, they might try to teach him or her a thing or two too!
Socialising with them can quickly turn painful as they turn every attempt at light banter into a chance to show off and in meeting their monologues throw off rather than contribute to the discussion.
In addition, they don’t hesitate to belittle and dismiss others who are less knowledgeable, and even those who are competent but generally quiet. They don’t realise that trying to be the smartest in the room does not make them a great leader.
In short, I think of such people as demonstrating intellectual toxicity. Their employees can’t stand them and their teams think of them as a liability despite their knowledge.
An intellectually toxic boss shuts up her team, gets her way and may be successful sometimes but this does not work in the long-run.
An intellectually toxic person creates a wall around himself by not accepting other’s views. He overestimates what he knows and does not realise his limitations. His tendency to belittle others makes others dislike and avoid him. He slowly becomes an island. Since he believes he knows it all, he stops learning his growth gets stunted. Also, since he is not able to take others with him, he is not looked at as a leader.
Have you ever been intellectually toxic?
You may be able to spot if someone else is intellectually toxic, but you may have a blind spot when it comes to yourself. I put together a set of nine questions—a yes to any question indicates that you behaved in an intellectually toxic manner! Be honest with yourself when you answer.
- Do you look for opportunities to demonstrate how smart you are?
- Do you try to dominate conversations rather than listening to others and building on what they say?
- Do you dislike debates and instead try to prove you are right?
- Do you feel extremely uncomfortable appearing ignorant and vulnerable before your colleagues, especially in your area of expertise?
- Are you dismissive and closed to others’ ideas?
- Do you belittle people for being ignorant?
- Have you picked titbits of information from the internet on various topics to show you are aware, all-knowing, informed and knowledgeable?
- Do you believe that your knowledge can get you everything and fail to see its limitations?
- Do you put on a façade of humility but quietly take every opportunity to show your cerebral strength?
The importance of humility
Humility is an important ingredient of success. All of us want to be with those individuals who seek our inputs and can take us along. No one wants to be with someone who does not listen and just dumps what he knows. As Laszlo Bock, former head of people operations of Google, mentioned some time back in a New York Times article, humility is a key trait that is looked for while hiring people.
An intellectually toxic boss shuts up her team, gets her way and may be successful sometimes but this does not work in the long-run. I can tell you from my experience that an intellectually toxic person has a limited shelf-life in a company. Remember, an “I don’t know”/”I am willing to learn from others” mindset is a must for a long, successful career. Never let your ideas and knowledge shut your mind to alternate viewpoints that could open up new dimensions.