How to Lead Smart People

Smart people are a real pain to manage, aren’t they?

  • They’re clever and they know it
  • They think they know better than you
  • They’re cynical about your attempts to build a strong, coherent culture
  • They don’t embrace your, or the organisations, vision of change like good little children
  • They don’t comply
  • They might want your job

And the most annoying thing? They’re usually right about things.

The modern workplace is yet to come to terms with the challenge of smart people, and so far it isn’t coping too well. The last 40 years has seen a gradual transition from the end of an industrial economy to a knowledge economy – and firms are now full of rising percentages of degree-qualified staff, impressive autodidacts and experts with unique skills everywhere you look. Everyone’s smart!

Wow! Firms must be doing really well with all these clever people? No. Most organisations haven’t got a clue how to manage smart people:

  • 85% of employees are disengaged
  • 70% of change fails
  • Most people think their boss is the worst part of the job.

The problem is that smart people have this ridiculous idea that they should be able to use their smarts to contribute their ideas and insights to workplace challenges. But most organisations don’t give them the chance to really contribute. So, they get frustrated, resentful, cynical, disengaged. The organisation responds with their own resentment and labels them as nonconforming obstacles: “not on board”, “culturally misaligned” etc.

All very dysfunctional. This is increasingly becoming the typical workplace.

Management theory hasn’t caught up yet

Much of the problem of course lies with managers and leaders – who of course are increasingly educated with MBAs and more, and of course HR managers with their psych degrees. These organisational managers have been trained in a jumble of management concepts and theories which simply are not suited to smart people. Let’s look at 3:

Scientific Management or ‘Taylorism’ focuses on optimising organisational performance through defined tasks, targets, measurement and various semi-enlightened approaches to performance management. Surprise! Smart people don’t like being treated like machines. They want to control their own work, and resent being micro-managed by unimaginative bosses according to metrics they see as increasingly meaningless or counterproductive.

The change management movement stresses the importance of addressing obstacles to change. And anyone with an alternative insight or opinion is seen as an obstacle that has to be ‘managed’ through insulting incentives, patronising coaching or ‘education’ until their resistance is eliminated.

The culture and values movement creates another opportunity for management to criticise and sideline anyone who doesn’t buy into their particular ideology or instinct. Strong cultures can be scary places where big brother is constantly looking for thoughtcrime. It is very difficult for smart people to avoid either voicing their opinions or indulging their behavioural instincts.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that these approaches at best don’t work and are increasingly counter productive – especially with smart people.

How to manage smart people

So, what’s to be done then?  It’s not as if all organisations can allow all their staff to be completely self-directing, to have a seat at the relevant committees, to contribute to their full potential?

No, but that doesn’t mean organisations shouldn’t try. The organisational structure of knowledge-based organisations is flatter than the traditional industrial pyramid and this should be creating more opportunities for meaningful contributions. And the move to a more contingent, flexible workforce might also mean that organisations can just focus on producing high quality work rather than constantly obsessing about how they should (mis)manage people.

Beyond that, the challenge of managing smart people comes back to the behaviours and approaches of individual managers and leaders. Here, the theory can help. The behaviours have already been identified and discussed in books and training courses the world over. The only challenge is to separate them from the baggage of alternative management approaches that either have never worked, or have not been designed for smart, confident self-directing people.


Well, not really, but that is the specific challenge for leaders in the knowledge economy.

Managing smart people: my tips:

  • Curiosity: learn to learn from your team. Curious Leader
  • Trust: earn trust and learn to trust others
  • Facilitate opportunities, challenges, learning and growth for your team
  • Collaborative decision making – learn how to make it work
  • Collaborative or objective based delegation
  • Help fight fires, help with obstacles and remove the unengaging drudgery – help them create a more rewarding job for themselves

Successful managers of smart people:

Accept that their team might have superior skills, knowledge and insights in their particular roles

  • Don’t guess how to motivate their team or use inappropriate motivating techniques. They discuss motivation openly and facilitate self-motivation.

Those are my ideas, but how do you get the best out of smart people?

Julie Watson is a speaker, facilitator and coach challenging teams, inspiring “Curious” leadership and championing change.

Email her at [email protected] or

phone on 0406 002 886 to find out more.