Our society is obsessed with the label of being smart. Even more so, we're obsessed with how smart you are compared to others. Historically, these measurements started in early education as a way to place children in the "right" class levels. As a result, our society has become overly focused on intelligence, so much so, that in the business world it's common to innocently describe others as smart without much thought. Being smart is defined in the dictionary as having or showing a quick-witted intelligence. This just tells someone they're fast thinking, but what value does it ultimately provide in the workplace?

The proclivity to use this label can cause long-lasting damage. Below are some reasons why being labeled "smart" is actually a hindrance rather than a help.

It can decrease motivation.

According to Carol Dweck, being labeled as smart has proven to decrease motivation in children and promote a fixed mindset. Dweck's research claims people with a growth mindset believe the harder they work, the smarter they'll get. Intelligence comes through practice. When you have a fixed mindset, you're more likely to avoid challenges. You're less motivated to get outside your comfort zone, ultimately reducing your likelihood to grow.

It can decrease confidence.

Once you're labeled "not smart," it can define your worth and potential. If you failed a test as a child or generally didn't receive top grades, this message might have become ingrained in you, ultimately carrying over into adulthood and the work you do now.

It is often not accurate.

How do you accurately measure someone's intelligence? Typically, an IQ test is used, and those are fraught with biases. So why do most people think they have the ability to label someone as smart or not smart? What they're really doing is comparing that person's abilities to their own or to others and making assumptions. These assumptions aren't doing anything helpful for anyone.  

It is used as a shortcut.

Using the word "smart" is a shortcut. It's generic, not specific enough to provide feedback, and comes with a lot of assumptions. For those that are on the receiving end of being called smart, it makes them feel useful, and at that moment special. Yet it doesn't provide anything specific that can help them grow. The word doesn't acknowledge the specific value that person is bringing to the table, so while the exchange may feel good, it does nothing more than stroke someone's ego.

Instead of leaning on the word smart, do this instead:

Use more specific words when describing what you're observing.

If someone is doing something really well, use words to describe that. Good examples are, "you're really an innovative and creative thinker. Your ideas are like nothing I've heard before. Your analysis is clear, the ideas really resonate with clients, and you will take the business forward."

Rather than labeling someone as not smart, slow down and notice what's missing.

Perhaps it's a behavior that isn't serving them. Maybe something is going on in their life that's causing less than a stellar performance. Get curious rather than jumping to conclusions and using labels.

Labels are powerful and can have a long-lasting effect. Being successful requires a growth mindset, grit, knowing your zone of genius, and being mindful. Being smart is just one aspect of what can contribute to success, but it's not the holy grail, and we need to start reflecting that reality in our language.

Published on: Apr 24, 2019
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