On my worst, most conceited days, I relate horribly to the boy from The Sixth Sense, tweaking his famous line to "I see stupid people." The reaction seems worst, though, when I see people treating others poorly or blatantly engaging in some kind of non-ethical behavior. I generally chide myself for the thought and remind myself that humility is a virtue, and that I'm not always the sharpest tool in the shed, either.

But a new study of over 1,000 people from the United Kingdom says my intuition about these individuals might be a bit more accurate than I originally thought. The overall finding was that people who show fewer negative externalizing behaviors--for example, cheating, stealing, breaking rules, or harassing somebody else on purpose--have higher IQs. They typically are less aggressive and more well-behaved.

Interestingly, the gap seems to be slightly worse if you're male. Rule-breaking, antisocial females had an IQ five points lower than their social peers. But for males, the gap doubles to 10 points, on average.

Now, high IQ isn't always a guarantee that you'll make good decisions--you might be smart but still take the easy way out in problem solving, for example, or you might be missing some information or strategies to think more rationally. And IQ scores tend to be a poor measure of the essential tools of rational thinking, as well--they can measure your ability to rationalize, for instance, but not whether you're inclined to do so in a given circumstance. So it actually shouldn't surprise us all that much if a "smart" person does something dumb, and our concept of "smart" shouldn't be limited to IQ in the first place.

But to decide what to do or how to behave, you have to be aware of and able to cognitively understand all the potential ramifications of specific behaviors. And even though we're always prone to be a little egocentrically biased for reasons of evolutionary survival, success is also tied to the ability to decipher social clues and interact well.

So it might be that people with lower IQs act up more often simply because they have trouble with this. Just as incompetent people aren't able to see their own lack of skill or knowledge, individuals who don't score as high also might not have as great of a sense about how the lack of conformity, ethics, or kindness might be problematic.

As a leader, the study suggests that, to some extent, you really can get a ballpark idea of IQ based on how someone acts on the job, and that the employees who are well-behaved might also have the extra spark of brain power you want for better innovation. And while the well-behaved rule breaker might seem like a bit of a paradox, it just means that those who are more social might be more careful about implementation and are able to bring their new ideas to the fore in ways that respect both people, processes, and protocols.

And this isn't to say that a more "problematic" employee can't do well--they might just need more guidance, and for you to be more explicit about what you want to see them do (or not do). Your modeling and patience matters, and whether inappropriate behaviors ultimately become accepted as part of the company culture ultimately is on your back.

Keep in mind, too, that people can behave very differently based on what's around them. Two normally-well behaved workers might push each other's buttons, for example, or an employee might participate in questionable behaviors out of peer pressure. So as you try to help everyone on your team along and informally assess intelligence to place them well, take that into account and look for what's generally consistent for someone over the long haul.

Published on: May 22, 2019
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