Are We Just Getting Too Smart For Our Own Good?

I read a quote the other day that reminded me that being dumb has never been so unpopular.

The quote was attributed to Diana Galbadon, the author of the Outlander book series, who said: “People ask me why I write strong women, and I say, ‘Well, I don’t like stupid ones.’”

Galbadon’s quip caused me to recollect how I once foolishly chided a manager for including “intelligent” in her job posting, because what’s the point of requesting a smart candidate? Who the hell doesn’t think he’s intelligent?

I don’t get it. The ad struck me as condescending and a waste of words at best and a complete turn off at worst. Maybe I’m too sensitive.

Still, dumb people aren’t getting much love these days, and nowhere is that truer than in the workplace.

Poverty leads to diminished brain capacity?

An article published last year by Science magazine suggested that being poor impedes cognitive functioning. The abstract from the article says:

The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty … We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.”

Wow.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this idea leaves me breathless. I’ll tell you why.

It’s the (knowledge) economy, stupid!

In 2001, Peter Drucker wrote an article titled The Next Society, in which he predicted “The next society will be a knowledge society. Knowledge will be its key resource, and knowledge workers will be the dominant group in its workforce.”

In The Changing Nature of Organizations, Work, and Workplace the authors state that the modern world of work has become more cognitively complex, more dependent on social skills, and more dependent on technological competence.

I’m willing to bet that both of these views square with your experience of the workplace. They square with mine.

Earlier this morning, I did a random search of the word “intelligent” on indeed.com for jobs in Philadelphia, my hometown, and here’s what I found:

  • We are looking for a team player who is highly intelligent.”
  •  “…people person, competitive, aggressively honest, goal oriented, disciplined, conscientious, optimistic, persistent, sense of humor independent, intelligent, and…”
  • The ideal candidate is an intelligent and energetic individual …”
  • We are looking for several intelligent, dedicated, flexible and hardworking Customer and Technical Service Representatives …”
  • …consistent, intelligent, organized, and a continuous learner.”
  • “This job requires fast and intelligent judgment and multitasking capability.”

You get the picture.

Setting ourselves up for a difficult future

So let’s think about this for a minute.

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Since the beginning of the Great Recession especially, some people are getting poorer and poorer. Being poor can lead to less intelligent decision-making. Intelligence is valued in the workplace more than ever.

This isn’t exactly a portrait of the American Dream, is it?

So you say, “I’m not sure I get where you’re going with this, Crystal. Organizations need smart people. And?”

Yes, organizations need smart people. But if all our new jobs that pay decent wages require that one possess more than his fair share of cognitive capital, then folks, we are setting ourselves up for a serious and marked permanent underclass that will NOT serve our businesses well in the future if we don’t:

  • Get a handle on our crummy public school system;
  • Get a grip on the costs of higher education;
  • Get back to training employees instead of expecting them to pop out of the metaphoric oven “ready made;”
  • Get serious about making our workplaces learning organizations, and;
  • Let go of the notion that intelligence is fixed, which perpetuates an “us” (the smarty pants destined to inherit the earth) versus “them” (the dumbbells doomed to clean our toilets) mentality.

“This is a problem for everybody”

In other words, we can expect a serious mess in the coming years as we won’t have enough people equipped to run our businesses, and worse, we won’t have a stable middle class to purchase our products.

In Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong, author Jerry Muller writes:

… This is a problem for everybody, not just those who are doing poorly or those who are ideologically committed to egalitarianism—because if left unaddressed, rising inequality and economic insecurity can erode social order and generate a populist backlash against the capitalist system at large.”

I’m not a socialist, I’m not a communist, and I’m as concerned with our expanding and overwhelmed government as the next person.

But, I’m becoming frightened that our fixation on “intelligence” is causing us to leave a lot of folks — capable, decent folks — by the wayside, even as we remain convinced that we can chase purple squirrels and unfettered profits, too.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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3 Comments on “Are We Just Getting Too Smart For Our Own Good?

  1. All part of the ongoing qualification inflation filtering down even to the most mundane jobs. Reminds of how around 25 years ago companies exaggerated education requirements. But are most jobs big enough to hold all that smarts, much less actually need them?

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