When Too Many Smart People Spoil the Team – A Guest Blog by Hodges L. Golson

Posted by & filed under Organizational Psychology.

We are pleased to be sharing Hodges Golson’s blog on the team dynamics if you have only uber bright people as members. Hodges has been consulting with CEOs on issues of leadership team effectiveness, leadership succession, executive selection and unique life-at-the-top questions and problems for over 40 years. We hope you will find this blog as insightful and thought-provoking as we do. Do share with us your comments, we’d love to hear them!

When Too Many Smart People Spoil the Team: The Apollo Effect in the Professional Firm

By: Hodges L. Golson, Ph.D.

An Apollo team is one composed of exceptionally bright and clever people. The Apollo phenomenon was first described by English psychologist Meredith Belbin, who designed and ran many long-term management simulations for business and government in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Belbin identified several key team roles (which were different from functional roles) necessary for effective team performance. He also found out what happens when a team has too many intellectually gifted members.

Using personality and aptitude test results, he studied a variety of team compositions. One of his hypotheses was that teams with many highly intelligent, creative individuals would emerge as super (Apollo) teams when competing with other teams in management simulations. However, the Apollo teams always proved to be ineffective or worse when competing with teams of more heterogeneous makeups.

Belbin’s research showed some of the problems of having too many bright people under the same roof. Apollo teams are characterized by:

  • Active debate – proposing and opposing.
  • Potential flaws or problems spotted too easily – ideas shot down too quickly.
  • Too many individual agendas – team members are too used to being right.
  • Many ideas generated – diffusion of focus.

It takes high intelligence and individual competitiveness to do well in an academic environment, to compete for limited resources (grades, admissions to the best schools, etc.) and to gain professional credentials. But a person who makes it through all the obstacles and gains full professional accreditation has had an extended period of anti-teamwork training. By definition, law firms, medical practices, CPA firms, etc., are Apollo teams. Professionals are trained to be independent, while people who work in typical business settings are used to operating in a hierarchical environment.

Lateral relationship skills (to help influence those over whom one doesn’t have direct control) are crucial to success in leading a professional firm, but are often in short supply in the professions.

Granted, professional firms have their share of difficulties and breakups (usually boiling down to control and relationship issues). But when seen in this framework, it’s amazing that they work at all and that so many of them do stay together and thrive.

Belbin identified certain keys to leading an Apollo team. Our own experience with clients confirms these principles:

  • A sense of humor helps to defuse competition and tension.
  • The leader can’t be highly dominant but neither can he/she allow others to be passive or overly analytical. The leader must hold ground but not by dominating. The leader must be more concerned with broad essentials (mission, values, etc.) than with practical, detailed matters.

This is not to suggest that professional firms should start hiring only people from the lower end of their graduate school class. However, it does suggest that, if not used and managed properly, high intelligence and critical thinking skills contain the seeds of potentially fatal problems for a firm.

Individually, highly intelligent people too often tend to be abrasive, arrogant, overly analytical or overly philosophical. In addition, professionals are used to having others seek them out for advice rather than listening to advice from others.

Not only should these individuals be coached about how to deal with the excess baggage of critical thinking aptitudes, but Apollo team leaders need to remain aware of the difficulties caused by too many of these people in the same organization.

Fortunately, awareness of this problem can help professional firms avoid pitfalls. It is possible for people to learn to deal with the downsides of high intelligence. After all, they’re bright… right?

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