What to do with the underutilized genius on your staff

While having brilliant players on your team can be advantageous, that doesn't mean they're easy to manage.

Have you ever worked on a project for months (or years), and one day a new employee walked in and offered a different way of doing things that was so good it rendered all your work useless? More than likely, you and the rest of your team felt like idiots for not thinking of it first.

It's easy to be intimidated by someone who clearly outpaces you in intelligence, creativity, social influence or memory. Even if you're a bright star yourself, there may be someone on your staff with exceptional abilities different than your own.

While having brilliant players on your team can be advantageous, that doesn't mean they're easy to manage. People who excel far beyond the norm in a particular talent or mental process can be unconventional, controversial, intolerant, rigid, and/or abrasive to the point that their abilities don't get fully recognized or integrated effectively.

The challenges of managing Mozart

According to "Genius at Work," an article by Diane L. Coutu in Harvard Business Review, "Working with and managing genius is precisely what companies must learn to do if they are to survive in the unforgiving, competitive environment of the twenty-first century."

However, creating an environment where a brilliant staff member can contribute to the extent of his or her exceptional ability can represent a significant challenge in the typical corporate workplace.

Perhaps similar to trying to drive a standard model car with a high performance engine, unique management dilemmas present themselves when you supervise a team with resident Genius, including:

  • Weighing workload - You may be tempted to give your Genius more work because you know he or she can get it done much faster, or bring your Genius in on projects outside of their job description to ask for their input. The trade off is that you may appear to be playing favorites, and it may be inferred that you consider the other members of the team to be incompetent in comparison
  • Taming a force of nature - Astronomically bright employees may get really worked up when you or others don't take their ideas to heart or follow their recommendations in the time frame they expect. They can also be impatient with colleagues, rules, processes, cultural norms and authority figures. They can trample, manipulate or simply ignore the way things are done and how people feel, and you might find yourself cleaning up their messes more than you benefit from their work
  • Sharing your rare resource - You've probably received requests from other departments for your Genius to be involved in projects outside of their normal duties. You may even have had some power struggles over how your Genius spends his or her time at work

It is not unheard of to have a brilliant mind relegated to support roles such as inventory, purchasing or help desk because no one can agree on how to allocate them within the organization

By gaining insight into how your Genius perceives the world, including the ways his or her exceptional ability can be more like a disability, you create the opportunity to be a better manager for them and the others on your team.

Along the way, you may discover a role for your Genius that allows him or her to contribute to the organization at the peak of their potential.

Understanding genius

Consider this - on an intelligence Bell Curve, with an IQ score of 100 being normal, an individual who scores 20 points lower, with a score of 80, would be considered unable to manage life without assistance. Yet if another individual scored 20 points higher, instead of also being considered disadvantaged, they are often expected to function at a higher capacity than those of normal intelligence.

Highly perceptive people are likely more aware than most of us of all the things that can go wrong in our world, and carry the weight on their shoulders. They may feel that they can see the solution to global problems, yet be acutely aware that they haven't been able to articulate their vision in such a way that has allowed others to join in to help, or they haven't been able to implement their ideas due to limited time, interest, ability or funds.

They may hold themselves to impossibly high standards, paralyzing themselves with a fear of failure, or using the potential for failure as an excuse for not trying.

The spectrum of brilliance

Some exceptionally bright people are good with numbers, creatively intelligent, powerfully intuitive, motivate others in amazing ways, or have eidetic (photographic) memory.

The scope of their heightened ability may be different as well - with skills as narrow as a specific kind of math, or as sweeping as strategic forethought. They may be able to access it readily, or only in moments of inspiration that cannot be forced, no matter the deadline.

In IT, roles such as engineer, programmer, analyst, web designer, help desk rep and manager can all attract geniuses with specific abilities. In order for them to excel in their work, though, they must have some self-enlightenment about the potential and limitations of their gift.

Coping skills

When it comes to the workplace, more important than the type of brilliance is the way the individual manages his or her giftedness.

For some, their flashes of brilliance may feel like a force of nature that they struggle to bring under control. For others, it may be mental focus with pinpoint accuracy. Some may be regimented and resist changing topics or projects. Others may be so open to the possibilities and interested by everything around them that they are easily distractible, leaving projects unfinished.

Many highly intelligent people are also highly sensitive. They may be unable to interpret social interactions accurately, taking harmless comments or business decisions deeply personally. They may not have well-developed skills for handling error, failure, and rejection.

Resurrecting the underutilized genius

You may not know the full extent of what your Genius is capable of doing - he or she may be holding back in order to:

  • Keep a low profile - Stay within their job description to avoid being assigned extra work from your department or other departments, or to avoid stepping on the toes of colleagues
  • Fit in with colleagues - To collaborate effectively and engage socially
  • Avoid reprisal - In the past they may have been labeled as trouble, found that they didn't fit in well in a department or organization, or even found colleagues or supervisors to be intimidated by them such that their work was devalued or sabotaged
  • Minimize stress - If they are easily overwhelmed by daily living, or prefer a simple life to ambition and pursuing wealth, you may find your Genius hiding out in a low-stress or "invisible" role

In addition, they may not fully realize how their abilities can be put to use in accomplishing departmental goals. You may discover that when you give them the big picture, they can put the pieces together in a way you never considered.


It may take some creative job description writing to find a workable role for geniuses on your staff.

In his Workplace Fairness blog post, "Win-Win: Managing Top Performers," Bob Rosner writes, "If there is one hallmark of a top performer, they usually are curious and want to learn. So it makes a lot of sense to create learning opportunities for them at work."

Rosner recommends letting the heavy-hitters on your team choose their own projects, get paid for learning new skills or working on pet projects, lead cross-disciplinary teams, and share the spotlight with you by filling in for you at executive meetings, etc.

Additional strategies for addressing the unique needs of your team include:

  • Make sure you know your Genius' motivations for working, and what kind of environment works best for them.
  • Find out what he or she struggles with most in the workplace and at home, and look for ways to address these issues.
  • Be sure to explain the reasons behind why workplace decisions are made -- "This is just how we do it here" or "it came from upper management" will likely be met with resentment or frustration.
  • Evaluate how much time your Genius spends working with raw data, rough drafts of RFPs, requisitions, and other tasks that can be effectively administered by othersConsider ways to set up the production chain so that he or she is allocated for filling in the missing pieces of complex problems.
  • Check in regularly with your Genius to see how the previous steps in the chain can be fine-tuned so that he or she doesn't need to go back and re-engineer what others have done.
  • Make sure that he or she isn't assigned to a project that hasn't been nailed down yet - they may complete the requirements so quickly that the client hasn't had time to get all the necessary approvals.
  • Try to keep your Genius focused on innovation, developing tools for automation of internal processes, or trying to predict future requirements.
  • Small concessions, such as allowing him or her to wear headphones at work, have a quiet, uninterrupted place to sit from time to time, or asking them to present lunch-and-learns can have a surprisingly positive impact.
  • A consultative role, done remotely, may be the best solution for your Genius (and your team).

Demonstrating compassion, validation, respect, flexibility, and encouragement, while key to working with any team member, can be particularly powerful when it comes to reaching the extraordinary talent within your Genius, and keeping the peace for all involved.

Ellen Berry writes about a variety of topics related to the workplace for BrainTrack.com. She has contributed content to BrainTrack's Career Planning Guide.