Some work environments seem designed to measure you by the number of (metaphorical) framed certificates you can display on your wall, how many letters you have after your name, and how quick witted you can be under pressure. It can be an intimidating experience for the sharpest of us, and outright terrifying if the last certificate you received was a fifty meter swimming award. But working with people who are smarter than you doesn’t have to be this way. The office brain box does not have to be one of the typical office’s cohort of painfully annoying colleagues. In fact, working with people who are smarter than you can give you a leg up rather than being a kick in the teeth.
Unless you’re a regular Stephen Hawking, we all have to deal with work colleagues who are smarter than we are. Don’t be intimidated. And whatever you do, don’t underestimate your own worth. If you find yourself working in a team full of smarty pants, here’s how to make it work in your favour.
1. Know Your Own Skills And Strengths
One of the most difficult things about working with colleagues who are smarter than you is that it can give birth to an unhealthy (and unnecessary) sense of inferiority. This makes you less effective in your own work and can limit your ability to achieve your personal potential. Combat this by knowing your own skills and strengths.
You might look at personal strengths and leadership qualities, or more at technical skills and experience, depending on your field of work. If you struggle with figuring out your strengths it might be helpful to start by thinking about the things you really enjoy doing in work. More often than not these are the things that we do often, getting better at them along the way until they become stand out strengths.
If you’re still unsure or want a different perspective, get feedback from your colleagues, family and friends about where your strengths might lie. If you’re ever feeling like your smart colleagues are overshadowing you, remember the value you add to your team too.
2. Understand The Strengths of Those Around You
You’re an expert at figuring out personal strengths now. Turn your attention to those around you and figure out what exactly it is that these smart colleagues are able to do exceptionally well. Maybe your colleagues are extremely good at finding creative approaches to problem solving. Maybe their vision for the future is like looking into a crystal ball, or else their ability to inspire their teams would make them first rate orators to rival Churchill or Martin Luther King.
Figuring this out helps you work more efficiently in two ways. Firstly you know who has the skills you need to tap into for any given project, and secondly you know who in your work network can help you learn the skills you need to stand out.
You can be lateral in your thinking here. Just because a smart colleague of yours works in a different team or part of the business, it doesn’t mean they can’t lend you some expertise. Having an external viewpoint can actually be an advantage when it comes to solving tricky problems, so ask away. Share the credit when you deliver on a project thanks to a bright spark colleague, to keep on building the relationships that will deliver for you.
3. Be a Connector (of People and Ideas)
If you find yourself in a team of smart colleagues, one unique thing you can do to make yourself (and those around you) more effective, is to be a connector of people and ideas. Often those bright sparks who are solving the big issues of the day are so close to the problem that they don’t see the patterns.
Help them see the wood from the trees by asking open, coaching questions to move their thinking on. The best coaches make measurable difference to the performance of even the smartest of people, and their role actually doesn’t require them to be super clever themselves. Developing an ability to read people well and help them draw the connections that allow them to figure things out will make you more effective and an indispensable part of any team.
4. Organize and Lead
The most impactful way you can work effectively with people who are smarter than you is to organise and lead them. The truth is that most successful people aren’t the smartest, but they’re those who build teams of the best around them. If you’re in a management role already and have the responsibility for recruiting team members, then this is easy enough to achieve. Don’t be put off by the idea of recruiting people who are smarter than you in the first place. This will only limit your own long term growth. Being able to find potential and great new talent is a strength that will get you far.
Learning your own strengths and those of the people round you is the first step to being able to coordinate and lead those round you, even if you’re not already working in a leadership position.
Find people who have the smarts to complement you. If you’re great at judging a situation and reading people, but hopeless when it comes to business analytics, try to work with someone whose personal strengths make up for your weaker areas, allowing you to use your skills base to benefit your colleagues in a different way. You may not get total control over who you work with on a day to day basis, but if you are choosing which projects to be involved in or which teams you would benefit from working with, then applying this thinking will help you find the right niche for your personal growth and development.
Sometimes working in a team of people that are smarter than you can feel intimidating. You might find yourself on the defensive, waiting for someone to catch you out in your ignorance. Or perhaps meetings become sniping matches with different people trying to score smart points by their specific (and of course, thoroughly riveting) industry knowledge. If your work atmosphere feels toxic because of this then you’re missing out. Figure out how to use the brain boxes in your team to your best advantage and you could find yourself benefiting enormously from working in amongst a crowd of real smarty pants.
Everyone brings something different to the workplace. If you’re feeling like you’re not the brightest spark in your office, then take some time out to figure out what it is you bring to the party. If your specific talent isn’t your smarts, then you can still use your skills to bring others together, coach your colleagues through their own thought processes, organise, and lead those round you. You never know, you might even learn something.