Monday, January 22nd 2018

Chalk Talk: Being Too Smart Undercuts Office Relationships

March 4th, 2015 in Leadership by

Will Lucas

Wilfred J. “Will” Lucas is President of the W. Lucas Group, Inc., a leadership development and executive coaching firm based in the Chicago area.  Previously, he spent nearly 25 years working in various corporate executive positions, including leadership positions as divisional general manager of Allegiance Healthcare, a unit of Cardinal Health, and also corporate staff leadership roles at Baxter Healthcare.  As a business coach, Lucas works with high potential middle managers and senior leaders in a cross section of industries.  He has engaged with numerous clients — at companies from BMO Harris Bank to Blue Cross Blue Shield — to help them leverage their individual gifts to achieve personal and company goals.  The strategic “chalk talks” Lucas will present here are designed to help readers develop the leadership skills which can propel them to the next level.

By Will Lucas

A young client of mine who works as a financial analyst in a large company, recently complained to me about how he was having trouble influencing some of his constituents in the business. His role is to be a business partner to the marketing managers responsible for building product and creating marketing strategies for the company’s product lines.  These marketing managers do not report directly to my client. He is not their boss. His role is to help them manage overall profitability of the product line, and his challenge has been to influence his marketing colleagues – to get them to accept his recommendations – even if they don’t have to listen to him.

It’s a difficult challenge that many professionals face, but they don’t always handle it as deftly as they should. Consider what happened with my client: The marketing manager proposed a pricing strategy that would have produced profit on paper, but according to my client’s analysis it would not have been accepted in a highly competitive market place.  So, my client raised strong objections. The problem is that he did it in an open meeting with the manager’s peers and supervisor present.

For everybody to hear, my client contradicted the marketing manager. He told everyone that the profit forecast made by the marketing manager was not very realistic. This caught the manager off guard. He likely felt embarrassed and perhaps betrayed. So he defended himself, declaring that despite my client’s opinion, he did not have a final say in the matter. My client may have appeared smart, but the move defeated his purpose by straining a relationship he had hoped to bolster.

Here’s the lesson learned: My client made what was already a somewhat strained relationship worse by objecting to the manager in a public forum with the manager’s bosses present. The first step in situations where someone is supporting a colleague is to get to know the individual he is working with. As we processed this incident in our coaching session, my client started to understand that he needed to go out of his way to build a relationship with this new marketing manager. He should have gone to see the manager privately and raised his objections.

This is a common situation when someone is an individual contributor.  You have solid expertise and you want to make sure that you demonstrate your worth to your peers, your bosses, and others. I know it feels good to be “the smartest person in the room.”  Having the right answer or cracking the case can be exhilarating.  The jolt of chemical serotonin in the brain makes us feel good about ourselves, reinforces our self worth, and so we think, helps us separate ourselves from the pack. It feels so good that we see no reason to stop being the “go to” person with all the answers. However, being “the smartest person in the room” at the expense of building a positive working relationship will only cost you in the long run.

When the smart guy becomes a threat to others, his ability to influence gets minimized.  No one wants to be made to look foolish. It generally pays to assess the landscape, apply reason, and make decisions that will make everyone more productive. If we automatically default to survival of the fittest mode – that fight or flight approach – we sometimes can go awry.  My client scared the marketing manager because he brought up information the new marketing manager should have considered himself. And it damaged a relationship my client was trying to build.

This does not mean that you have to keep useful information to yourself. Being smart and adding value is “life blood” that’s important for you to show. I am not advocating for a diminished level of being smart. I am recommending that you put a positive relationship first. Look for opportunities to reveal your findings and opinions in the safety of a private meeting, where the person you are trying to influence is not exposed. At the same time you can remind the person that it is your job to raise the objection in a meeting.

This approach allows you to emphasize the relationship and give the person the opportunity to see you as a source of help, and as someone who can be relied upon.  Remember, at the heart of influence is not only being right, but also showing that you care about someone’s success.

Using your knowledge and skill to help your constituents improve their performance is an important step along the pathway to the top. Often in your career, the only way you will get something done is through others. Trying to do it all by yourself and show the world how smart you are can backfire and ultimately stagnate your career.