Recent exchanges reminded me of this essay I wrote a few years ago. It's in my book, Chaos for Breakfast, was published in several newsletters, including the Mensa Bulletin, and translated into Dutch for the Mensa organization in Holland. It's my take on what psychologists call Narcissistic Personality Disorder. ~Bob
Avoiding Bright Guy Disease
Is it just me, or is “Bright-Guy Disease” (BGD) on the rise? Oh, you may call it by a different name, but we’ve all had co-workers, board members or bosses with it.
“Bright-Guy Disease” is my name for the condition that too-often afflicts very smart people, who have usually been very successful. Because of their intellect, they’ve frequently had to deal with folks who aren’t as sharp as they are. Since they are so successful, at some point they subconsciously conclude that everybody else (with few exceptions) is dumber then they are.
If they have an idea, it has to be a great idea, because they are so much smarter then you. If you disagree with their idea, you must be not just refuted, but crushed, because disagreeing not only proves how stupid you are, but means you fail to recognize their brilliance.
If you have an idea, it must be dumb, because if it was a good idea, they would have thought of it first. After all, they are so much smarter then you.
In my experience, “Bright-Guy Disease” most often affects men, perhaps because the glass ceiling has kept women from equal levels of success, perhaps because girls are socialized to be cooperative, while boys are socialized to be competitive. As though to make up for this, the few cases I’ve observed in women seem to be particularly virulent.
What are the symptoms?
Fellows with BGD talk more then they listen—a LOT more. Larry King says he never learned anything while he was talking. But the BGD-victims don’t need to learn anything—they already know it all.
BGD sufferers will frequently be angry and will often shout to make a point. This is perfectly justified to correct your error, just as you would feel justified in shouting to keep a small, not-to-intelligent child from putting his hand in the fire.
People with BGD conclude they are experts in many fields, since they’ve been successful in one. They know more about the law then any attorney, more about medicine then any doctor, and certainly more about association management then you do.
They will also not hesitate to bend the facts to fit their worldview—since they are always right, facts are things that simply must be made to agree with them. Should the facts ever indisputably prove they are wrong, they will simply move on and stop discussing the issue—but they will remember who proved them wrong.
Unfortunately, victims of BGD are always the last to recognize the symptoms. If you think you might be suffering from BGD, ask yourself three questions:
Do I respect the people around me for their knowledge, experience and intellect? Everyone knows more than you do about something. Anyone can have an idea that is better then yours. One of the best advisors I’ve had in association management was a part-time janitor, Bob Murray, well past retirement age, who simply had great insights into the way the office was working and staff interactions.
When was the last time I changed my point of view because of someone else’s opinion? If you can’t recall, it may be because you have BGD.
Do I find myself angry a lot of the time with people who disagree with me? Sure, we all get angry over integrity or performance issues, but divergent points of view are valuable.
Coping with BGD
Just recognizing the problem will help keep you out of the line of fire. Confrontation with BGD victims is to be avoided, hard as that may be. They will simply increase the level of their rhetoric until you are beaten down. And they can be vindictive if you cross them.
They enjoy confrontation and arguments because they need to prove, daily, how much smarter they are then you. (Update--today they spend a lot of time commenting on blogs, trying to put you down to reassure themselves of how smart and valuable they are.)
Keep in mind that, while some folks are awed by their intellect and success, many others will recognize them for what they are, so you will have allies. But don’t lose your cool and get into a battle with them—it seldom helps. (Been there, did that, still bleeding.)
Instead, give them enough rope to hang themselves. If their idea is really wrong, the longer they expound on it, the more people will realize it, without help from you.
Approach them obliquely. Phrases like, “You’re absolutely right, I’m just worried about X.” Or, “I agree, and hope that X doesn’t derail the plan.” X, of course, is some inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit their idea. People with BGD will often slowly change points of view, or modify ideas to fit the facts, maintaining that was their position all along. The strategy is to guide them to the correct path while letting them claim credit for being there all along.
Of course, if all else fails, you can take the approach once taken by an attorney speaking to a fellow lawyer with BGD.
First Attorney: “You know, Darrell, between us we know everything there is to know.”
BGD Attorney: “How’s that, George?”
First Attorney: “Well, Darrell, you know everything there is to know in the whole world except that you’re a jerk—and I know that you’re a jerk!”
But this might not be the best approach with your boss!