The saying goes, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I know it means we should surround ourselves with really smart people, but I don’t like it because it fails to recognize that you might be the expert in the room others are relying on.
Knowledge really is power. When people claim knowledge they are often trying to get power over someone. (Shutterstock/Lorelyn Medina)
I prefer the saying, “Trying to be the smartest person in the room isn’t smart.” This one is better because it reminds me that there are few ways to lose credibility faster than making other people feel stupid. Even if they don’t actually feel stupid, they will likely think people who are trying to act smarter than everyone else are jerks.
how to make an ass of yourself in 10 seconds
I remember a meeting when one of our engineers lost all his credibility in the first ten seconds. The goal of the meeting was to find the most cost-efficient way to build a temporary corridor to connect two buildings. The engineer wanted to build the corridor as if it would be permanent, but everyone else wanted to know if there was a more cost-effective option. The engineer was already seated at the table before anyone else arrived.
As soon as we all sat down, and before one word was spoken, he grabbed a stack of binders from under the table, placed them in front of him and said, “I’m going to tell everyone exactly what the building code says, and that’s how we’re going to build it.” Before he could make a complete ass of himself, I said, “I think we should start with some introductions.” I had invited a local building inspector to the meeting to explain to our engineer exactly what our options were. The engineer assumed he knew the most about building codes, however, he didn’t know that the true expert, the building inspector, was among the other attendees.
knowledge truly is power, so be careful
Knowledge really is power. When people claim knowledge they are often trying to get power over someone. I’ve written about how we come to be seen as credible only after we develop a track record of being reasonable. Trying to be the smartest person in the room is a way of advertising power. It’s not what a reasonable person does, and it destroys credibility.
If you are an expert and you want to share your knowledge to influence people, as you should, here’s the best way to do it.
#1 be of service and support others
Everyone already knows you’re the expert, that’s why you are being consulted. But, you can’t always know what information is important to others. Ask how you can be helpful and provide your answers in the most helpful way.
#2 provide your opinion and interpretation, and then give options
Few things are clearly black and white or right and wrong. If they were, everyone would easily see the best path forward and there wouldn’t be any meetings. If you want to build and maintain credibility, show people that you understand how others might interpret the data, but then explain how you arrived at your own opinion.
If there are alternatives, discuss them. If you try to deny or hide alternative solutions, people will see through you and your credibility will be destroyed.
#3 explain the consequences objectively, rather than just telling people your preference
Most of our decisions have some negative consequences. There’s no doubt that you are advocating for the solution that has the least negative consequences, but your audience needs you to be objective. If your recommendation is the best one, then clearly explaining the pros and cons of yours and the other options should guide them to your solution.
Go for credibility by being reasonable, rather than trying to be the smartest person in the room. This way, people will be more receptive to your great ideas.