HOW SMART DO WE HAVE TO BE, OR WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SUCCEED ON THE JOB — AND IN LIFE?

By Paul

For decades, and probably even for centuries, people have been wondering what it means for someone to be intelligent.  In the early 20th century, the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, came up with a method to test for intelligence which, after a good deal of deliberation and discussion, came ultimately to be known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale.  In its various iterations and permutations, it has come down to us today as the most recognized Intelligence Quotient, or IQ Test, we have.

The test has been widely used in a whole host of areas, everything from a tool for school placement, to military aptitude, to how well a person will perform on the job.  The way most of us have probably heard about it relates to where an individual falls on the continuum of scores of the vast number of people who have taken the test over the years. If, for example, a person gets an IQ score of 115, let us say, we now know that this means that it represents that she or he is in the 84th percentile, meaning that this individual has outscored 83% of the people who have taken the test. Most of us would agree that such a person must be considered “smart,” or at least smarter than an awful lot of other people (specifically, 83% of the population).

All of this is relatively uncontroversial these days. What is more questionable, however, is what exactly does such a score mean for success in the world? In one sense, it is merely a number. Note, for example, that the word “quotient” itself is a term taken from mathematics, where it refers to the result obtained when we divide one quantity by another. In more general everyday parlance, a quotient refers to the amount of a specified quality, such as an emotional quotient.  Etymologically, it comes from the Latin word “quotus,” which means how much or how many.

Yet a number of businesses use IQ scores as one, although only one, measure of whether given individuals ought to be hired in the first place, and as a projection of how well they will do on the job.  The theory is that a person with a relatively high IQ will be good at abstract reasoning, problem solving, and learning new material. Conversely, the assumption is made that people with lower IQ scores will show themselves less apt in regard to these qualities, which many companies feel are useful skills for their workers to have.  And while this may well be true, if in fact abstract reasoning and problem solving are traits that have paramount usefulness in a given workplace, are we to assume that all jobs, or even most of them, require such qualities in those who work there? As for the other characteristic, that of an ability to learn new things, it’s probably safe to say that this is a fairly universal trait that most employers would value.

My own experience with all this comes from the point of view of someone who was the supervisor of a relatively large office, varying in size anywhere from 15 to 20 people, for almost 20 years.  Of course, I found that intelligence was a good thing. It is usually, although not always, a pleasure to work with someone who is highly intelligent. Such an individual “gets things” immediately. You don’t have to repeat and repeat, or to show someone endless times how to do something.  Additionally, such individuals frequently see things that need to be done before a supervisor ever has occasion to point them out. Smart people can usually figure out how to resolve problems without someone having to show them. All this is to the good, and allows a supervisor to do other things than to watch over people to be sure that a given task has been done correctly.

But are there other qualities, other quotients if you will, that are equally as helpful and valuable in the workplace, aside from what we might call “mere intelligence?”  I believe that there are.  A workplace is almost always a kind of small, enclosed society, and in such settings getting along with those in the group is of paramount importance. Such traits as openness, tolerance, a willingness to help others, and I might even go so far as to say empathy and compassion, go a very long way toward making for a work environment where everyone can contribute and do well.   Conversely, gossiping, backbiting, or even subtle but deliberate sabotaging of others can cause anger, hurt feelings, and an oppressive and negative environment wherein people find it hard to concentrate and do their job properly.

All this is easy to say, but it can be difficult to bring about. Whoever the supervisor may be, it is up to him or her to do everything possible to create an environment where people can thrive.  And where individuals thrive, and where there is an open and supportive work environment, the chances of people being happier and more productive are that much greater. None of this is a panacea, of course, and there are countless examples of good managers who still have difficult and recalcitrant workers, just as there are excellent workers who have unsupportive, clueless, micro-managing, or even mean-spirited bosses, and who nonetheless do excellent work in spite of all.  Nothing is perfect in this world, but that does not relieve any of us of the responsibility always to try to make things better for everyone involved.  As a supervisor, and in my case an academic administrator, my first assumption with everyone I worked with, whether those individuals reported to me or not (and until, and unless, otherwise proven wrong), was that each person wanted to do his or her best, and that everyone’s ultimate goal was to figure out the most useful way to serve students and to help them succeed.  Naturally, a concomitant goal at a university must also be the generation of knowledge and creative activity, the fostering of problem solving and critical thinking, as well as knowing and experiencing other cultures and other ways of seeing the world.  Such activities on the part of both faculty and staff obviously also promote and advance the basic goal of student learning.

Exactly how flawed and fallible human beings go about achieving such lofty goals is the question.  The most basic thing, the sine qua non, must always be to start with a staff that is treated fairly and paid equitably for their work, as well as for their training and experience. Beyond that, those in a managerial or supervisory role should make every effort to create an environment wherein people can succeed and thrive, and each individual whoever they may be, whether president or grounds keeper and everything in between, must do their utmost to advance the basic goals of student growth and learning.

Intelligence is more than the ability to calculate, to remember, to synthesize, or to reason.  True intelligence, what we might also call mature intelligence, is the ability to do these things in a way that also supports, nurtures, and cultivates the gifts and talents of others. I don’t know of any percentile number that can be given to this quality, but over the years I have been privileged to see it in operation.  And that, in its own right, is always an honor and a profound learning experience. Smart people are interesting to work with, if sometimes challenging, but it’s from those with a well-rounded and fully developed maturity that we learn grace, and even perhaps a bit of wisdom. And in the end, isn’t that really the intelligent life that each of us is reaching for?

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