What Really Intelligent People Need To Perform At Their Best

Jane has been recently promoted to Senior Manager at a technology firm.

When I met Jane, she told me her most pressing problem:

I have some really smart people on my team.  While that seems great, they’re really challenging to lead.  What should I do? 

Leading highly intelligent people is a double-edged sword.

The (obvious) upside is they’re really smart.   They think through things  with depth and breadth.  They see how one thing connects to the next.   They also have high expectations–of outcomes, of themselves, and of others.

The downside is that those expectations come with a quick trigger towards frustration. They rebel against being treated like mindless sheep.  They don’t like to be managed; they want to be led.

If you’re like Jane, and lead a team of intelligent people, what should you do?  What do they need to perform at their best?

Here’s the surprisingly good news:  it turns out that what intelligent people want from their leaders is what everyone wants from their leaders.  It just may be to a somewhat greater extent.  So breathe easy:  You don’t need to separate your team out into various subgroups by IQ score.Here’s what you should do:



It’s defined as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”

People crave meaning.  They are constantly asking:  “What does this mean? What should I do?”   They ask this because they recognize that in each moment, there are a multitude of potential decisions.

Without context, that multitude becomes paralyzing.  Employees will get frustrated and/or agitated.  In this void of lack of context, it becomes difficult for them to discern which choice makes the most sense to act on first.   They can’t tell which decision links best to their priorities.

How should you best give context?  There are two areas to focus on if you want to become a great context setter:

  1. Share the plan

  2. Share the why behind the choice


People love to make connections.  The mental effort of connecting things together brings a intellectual joy of and is a huge motivator.  It’s like finding the correct next piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

When you share the plan, you show how point A connects to point B connects to point C. The plan also helps people to see how they’re making progress towards their goal. Research has shown that progress is one of the strongest motivators of performance.

Without a clear plan, smart people are left in the dark.  Then, if you say “do this thing next”, you will (at best) get compliance.  “Because I said so” is demotivating to all employees.  They find it condescending and will resist following your lead.


People recognize that for each choice made, there were multiple alternate options not chosen.

When you share the why, employees feels empowered.  It’s an remarkably inclusive act.When you share the why, your action demonstrates respect.  It models honesty and transparency. It shows them that you consider them to be part of an adult-adult relationship.  Too many bad leaders patronize their employees and treat them like children.

Sharing the why also allows your employees to engage in higher-level thinking, When they hear the why, they get to simulate the process you went through to arrive at the decision point.  Your people will intuitively appreciate the mental rigor this simulation brings.  They will also have more empathy for you in your role as a leader who has to make a choice.

Another benefit to sharing the why is it creates an opportunity for your people to speak up and question the choice if they notice something wrong in your process.  If you’ve created an environment of candor, the wisdom of your smart team can help you to avoid potentially costly mistakes.   This is especially true if you include their input earlier in the decision making process.

Ultimately, it comes down to the mindset of you as a leader.  If you see your people as bumps in the road to be paved over, you’re probably going to fail to get them to a place of high performance.  However, if you understand the makeup of your employees and act accordingly, you’ll find them to not only be top performers, but tremendous assets for the rest of your team.

What other techniques do you use to bring out the best in all of your employees?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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