Squirrel!: Welcome to the Ricky Bobby School of Management

BusinessPart two of a series.

Ricky Bobby is not a thinker…He is a doer. – Talladega Nights

In part one of this series, we talked about a new analysis that explains how important stupidity is to the modern corporation. Today we’re going to have a look at what this means for you.

In short, despite what you’ve been told your whole life, being smart may not be good for your career.

In some job situations, being smarter, faster, and more rhetorically gifted might also keep you stuck in your current role longer than your peers.

“When you have a lower-level job, being exceptionally good at it is usually a deterrent to getting promoted,” says Lilit Marcus, author of Save the Assistants: A Guide for Surviving and Thriving in the Workplace. For example, “when you’re such a great assistant that your boss has difficulty functioning without you, it means that he or she will keep you on as an assistant as long as possible and will not consider promoting you out of their service.”

You bust your ass, you’re the best performer in the office, and yet you got passed over for a promotion by that useless dolt Johnson, who spends all day on Facebook? Indeed, and now maybe you know why.

I was talking with my friend and colleague J. Stephen O’Brien, who spent years as a senior level consultant for some of the country’s largest corporations. He hid this to say about the process of deciding whom to lay off:

It wasn’t that they targeted smart people, it was that the people they let go tended to be among the very best or very worst performers. The very best performers tended to be the very smartest, or at least the smartest who were unwilling to just go along and keep their mouths shut.

And this is a common phenomenon. You hear it all the time in post-layoff interviews and focus groups. The people left behind are, in virtually every case, flabbergasted that “Mary” of “Bob” or whoever was let go, because they were the very best.

But the very best tend to be both threatening and irritating. They figure out stuff that’s being done wrong, and they want to fix it. When interviewed about why Mary or Bob was let go, the people making that decision usually had something to say along the lines of “not a team player,” “trouble-maker,” “didn’t fit in,” etc. People who worked side-by-side with Mary and Bob didn’t have these impressions, at all. Just the opposite, in fact.

This dynamic helps explain a particular kind of company, one that some of us know all too well. In this company you find smart people, but a) they’re generally quiet, and b) none of them are higher than mid-management. The senior leadership stratum is Ricky Bobby from one end to the other, and anyone lower down the food chain who demonstrates above average intellect is soon out the door. (Fred Spannus does a wonderful job of articulating their particular perspective, and I recommend you pop over and give him a read when you’re done here.)

The irony is that a lot of the former employees JS describes had probably been encouraged to speak up. Be forewarned: it’s a trap. Avoid cultivating a reputation as a “straight-shooter” as you would the galloping herpes. When the bosses say “we really appreciate your honesty,” they’re lying.

In the end, it’s clear that all too many businesses are populated and run by people who, as I have been known to say in business meetings, “aren’t rocket surgeons.” In some cases it seems to work out for them (witness the massive profit numbers generated by companies whose leaders are essentially sociopathic C students). But there’s a cost, and it’s frequently paid by workers who haven’t yet learned to keep their intelligence to themselves.

As I thought about this series over the past few days, my mind kept swinging back around to dogs. You know how dogs don’t really grasp the concept of pointing? You’ll be pointing up a tree and saying “look, buddy, a squirrel!” He’ll be all excited because he knows the word “squirrel,” but since he’s staring at your finger instead what you’re pointing at, he’s completely baffled?

That’s what a lot of business leaders are like. They talk about how important it is to have smart people, even though they’re structured so as to keep smart people out of the company (or at least away from decision making). They bray about creativity, making frequent reference to how important it is to “think outside the box.” Because nothing is more creative than the tiredest cliché in the jargon manual.

But when a truly smart employee stands up and points to a creative idea, like a dog owner to a squirrel in a tree, the “leaders” respond by staring at the finger. And then trying to bite it.

Be brilliant if you must. But if leadership finds out, be prepared to suffer the consequences.


  • “The irony is that a lot of the former employees JS describes had probably been encouraged to speak up. Be forewarned: it’s a trap. ”

    I once had a focus group at a company describe the management open door police as the “major career error” policy.

  • i cant tell you how many times I’ve tried to talk someone out of speaking up.

    They sit there and look at me and say, “But they WANT me to tell them. They said so.”

    “No, they don’t, you moron.”

    It never worked.

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