The Intelligence Trap: Being Smart Can Be a Liability

Why hiring the smartest person may be the wrong decision.


  • Individuals with higher IQs are less likely to thrive in a highly structured company environment.
  • Smarter people may view socializing as tedious, awkward, and anxiety provoking.
  • Perceptions of vast personal intelligence are positively related to counterproductive work habits.
  • Irrational perfectionism can derail the efficiency of gifted individuals.

Across cultures, high intelligence is a desirable quality. Smarter people are more prosperous (Daniele, 2013), healthier (Wraw, et al., 2018), and report greater life satisfaction (Gonzalez-Mulé, 2017). While what constitutes intelligence is debated and culturally nuanced, researchers typically agree that intelligence includes at least three components. The first factor is crystallized knowledge, which consists of facts and information, otherwise known as what we learn in school or through experience. Second, fluid intelligence, which is unrelated to experience, is the ability to process information through knowledge application, reasoning, and solving problems efficiently. Third, many researchers include self-control and the management of emotions as constituting intelligence. Superior performance in these three categories usually means you are considered smart, but elevated performance also means that you are prone to some substantial liabilities.

The factors described below are some of the areas where being smart may backfire. What causes performance deficits and which factors influence the relationship between intelligence and certain outcomes may be two different things. For example, it is suggested that smarter people swear more (Washmuth & Stephens, 2022), but surely blurting out a cavalcade of curse words will not increase your IQ. Given this understanding between cause and correlation, we can confidently predict that people with advanced intelligence will score poorly on the following dimensions and behaviors.


Individuals with elevated levels of conscientiousness tend to be precise, persistent, tidy, punctual, methodical, and hardworking (Moutafi et al., 2004). They pride themselves on consistent performance, metaphorically coloring within the lines, and reaching personal goals. Surprisingly, smarter people are usually less conscientious. When the going gets tough the smartest people rely on their intelligence alone to get through challenging situations. Conversely, those with lower IQ scores rely on rule abidance and meeting expectations as a coping strategy to navigate life’s difficult circumstances. More intelligent folks can be successful despite being less structured, comparatively unorganized, and more carefree. Ironically, there is a higher concentration of conscientious people in the field of education, where we would expect intelligence to be paramount. Additionally, more conscientious folks are early risers, presumably because when the conscientious get up early they have more time to get things done (Gorgol et al., 2020)


One of the most widely accepted personality measures is where we fit on the continuum between introversion and extroversion. Introverted individuals generally draw energy from solitude and like to think things through before acting. In contrast, extroverts are empowered by the outside world and socializing serves as their catalyst for action. While study results are mixed, generally introverted individuals have higher levels of fluid and crystallized intelligence. In one study investigating work performance (Furnham et al., 2004), introverted managers scored significantly higher on intelligence tests than their extroverted peers. The consensus explanation is that extroverts gain more traction and achieve success by relying on a verbal ability that makes socialization a low anxiety and rewarding process. In turn, introverts are less outgoing because they rely on their smarts to be successful. Not surprisingly, as individuals mature (and have fewer friends and family) they become more introverted.

Counterproductive work behaviors

Most intelligent people believe they are highly competent and as such have plenty of positive self-esteem. In turn, these individuals feel they are highly desirable to employers because of their unique abilities and qualifications. Sadly, high intelligence perceptions may be damaging, breeding contempt towards employers when the employee feels that the organization does not recognize their advanced intellect and extraordinary potential. The disconnect between personal and company impressions leads smart folks to believe they are overqualified (Liu et al., 2015). When perceptions of overqualification fester, individuals become less productive at work and more prone to devious behaviors and distractibility due to feeling slighted by their employers. What does it mean? Employers should do everything possible to listen to employee perceptions and when recruiting test for individual self-perceptions. The smartest may not always be the best fit.

Irrational perfectionism

Many of us strive to have exceptional work performance, which is normally a good thing for both companies and individuals. Unfortunately, the excellence goal gets out of hand when the individual exhibits perfectionist concerns that dictate a constant and rigid demand of the self to be perfect under every possible circumstance (Stoeber & Otto, 2006), a description that closely parallels the definition of a gifted individual. To make matters worse, individuals with an inordinate perfection focus often have huge self-doubt, fear mistakes, and experience highly negative emotions (like depression) when things don’t go as planned. There is however a silver lining; the traits of self-control and self-management that can mediate perfectionist concerns are no less frequent in gifted individuals than in their lower-achieving peers (Stricker et al., 2020). Perfection is not a core quality of the gifted when it is accompanied by the less lethal belief that perfectionism is a goal and not an unwavering necessity.

The smart advantage

Is there hope for the highly qualified and exceptionally intelligent person at work? Of course, there is. Being smart has decisive advantages in the workplace. Those who score higher on measures of IQ and emotional intelligence have a better ability to delay gratification, have less performance anxiety, and develop a better sense of humor than their lower-scoring peers. Smarter folks tend to share more (think teamwork) and will lend a hand when another person needs help. The bottom line: An organization should test for the qualities and traits that align most closely with its organizational philosophy. Over-reliance on perceptions of intelligence and experience may often be a hiring mistake that the organization will soon regret.