Monday, November 14, 2011

Overestimating a Person's Intelligence Can Be as Risky as Underestimating.

It is a matter of common knowledge that one of the worst things you can do when dealing with people is to underestimate their intelligence.  When you do this, it leaves you open to some nasty surprises.  You think that, because someone talks slowly, or has a slightly rustic accent, they don’t possess a sharp mind, and that will cause you to miscalculate more often than not.
So, that’s good advice – never underestimate people.  Of course, from sad personal experience, I’ve found it’s also dangerous to overestimate people.  It can be a big mistake to assume that just because a person has a college degree, or comes from a more or less privileged background, they will know the things you know – even things you think are as common as dirt.
Once, when I was the number two in a government organization operating in a difficult and often dangerous situation, I was charged with keeping everyone’s morale up and keeping them focused on our mission.  I often held pep talks with them; always encouraging them to persevere, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.  One of my favorite sayings was, “We don’t quit as long as we have a breath left in our bodies. Even when the forces arrayed against us are powerful and relentless, we will not roll over on our backs like a dog.”  Now, if you’ve had a dog as a pet, or you’re at all familiar with the habits of predators, you’ll know that in a fight, the weaker animal will submit by rolling up and exposing its throat and belly.  Everyone knows that, right?
That’s what I thought until two of my female employees came to me privately and complained that that sentence made them uncomfortable.  I was confused as to why that should be so, so I pressed them for an explanation, and finally, red-faced, they let me know that such specific sexual references were inappropriate in the office.  Now, it was my turn to be red-faced, and it took me a few moments to collect my wits and explain animal behavior to them.  We all had a good laugh, but I learned a valuable lesson.  Some people actually do grow up without ever having a pet, or observing animals in the wild – or even in a back alley, so what was common knowledge to me was completely unknown to two of my employees.
So, word to the wise – try to neither underestimate nor overestimate the people you work with; and good luck with that one.