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The Smartest Person in the Room


Tue Aug 01 2023

The Smartest Person in the Room

Thriving in talent development (TD) requires intellectual elasticity. The best TD professionals are lifelong learners in the most authentic meaning of the term. This poses an exciting opportunity and a genuine and often overlooked threat to our credibility. I imagine it’s a common experience for TD professionals to receive a request to provide a training intervention on a particular topic. For training on a technical system or application, that’s a straightforward request; however, when faced with something a bit less fixed, gathering information and selecting credible sources becomes more interesting but much more tenuous. For example, I was once tasked with creating training to help customer service agents become more empathetic. How do you train empathy? Even more vexing, how do you decide what information is reliable or, more bluntly, true?

I dutifully did my research and found some tantalizing psychological studies that seemed to tap into areas of the human experience that were directly or tangentially related to the behavior of empathy; in this case, the study documented a psychological phenomenon called ego depletion. I incorporated some of these studies into my training with high confidence in their veracity. It wasn’t until later that I discovered the topic was far more complicated than I originally realized. In fact, some suggest ego depletion may not exist at all (see Is Ego Depletion Real? An Analysis of Arguments"). Furthermore, to add embarrassment to my intellectual insult, some psychologists question whether society should even care that something like ego depletion exists (see Adam Mastroianni on Peer Review and the Academic Kitchen").


Even steadfast professional concepts like emotional intelligence (EI) are not immune from justified skepticism. Psychologist Adam Grant insists that “unbridled enthusiasm” for emotional intelligence has obscured its “dark side.” As part of my graduate studies, I developed a six-week course for professionals to improve their EI. While discussing the topic with a faculty adviser, she mentioned that some of what Daniel Goleman wrote in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ should be considered fraud. As you might expect, I was taken aback. Was she right? If yes, what should I stop using in my development courses? If she was incorrect, why did she feel such conviction on the matter?

So what are TD professionals to do? I’m not suggesting we give up on our endeavor of lifelong learning. There is plenty to learn and plenty of it is true; having said that, I think we should embrace academic and pedagogical humility. For example, now, when I teach concepts of EI, I’m clear about where and whom I’m pulling the information from and always mention I’m sharing a theory of emotional intelligence, not the only theory. In addition, when researching and discovering new concepts, especially if they seem uniquely sensational and exciting, I approach with caution and teach them (if at all) tentatively. TD professionals, just like anyone, can be captured by psychology fads that seem revolutionary but eventually spin themselves out of fashion and relevance.

TD professionals should also be careful not to ascribe to themselves an expertise they don’t possess. I have heard some teach, with little diffidence, extremely complicated hypotheses related to neuroscience because they read a few articles about the topic on a popular website. There are no shortcuts to deep knowledge. I think we can act as a bridge between learners and new knowledge, leading them from ignorance to illumination, but we should make sure we’re leading them across the right bridge. I believe TD professionals are uniquely placed in an organization to have a distinctive range of knowledge. They can practice what author David Epstein calls “lateral thinking” in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. This concept refers to looking across multiple disciplines from varied perspectives and leveraging many knowledge domains to find creative solutions to prickly problems.

In conclusion, TD professionals, as lifelong learners, have a wonderful opportunity to curate and share knowledge with others. Their burden is ensuring the information they share is correct and useful. Overstating or feigning expertise is a temptation to be resisted. Knowledge is not stale and adjustments sometimes must be made to what and how we teach. That’s okay. In fact, it’s thrilling! There is more to learn, and that should excite all of us.

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