The concept of intelligence is often invoked to explain why one person succeeds in a situation that makes another falter. Schools place a lot of emphasis on cognitive ability and have developed all manner of tests to examine their students for it. Researchers have come up with test scores of their own to quantify how much intelligence someone possesses. The intelligence quotient (IQ) test is the most well-known of these. The emphasis on IQ derives from the observation that careers in science, technology, engineering, and math are often heavily dependent on cognitive ability. ‘Cognitive smarts’ have thus become highly treasured assets.
For much of our existence as humans, intelligence was understood to be a general mental capability involving the ability to reason, plan, and solve problems, especially of the complex kind. The IQ test aimed at capturing this sort of ability in a numerical form: it was the total score obtained from a set of standardized tests. The median IQ test score for the general population is usually cited as 100. IQ test scores fall somewhere between 85 and 115 in two-thirds of people; only 5% of the population would score above 125, and another 5% scores below 75.
How accurate is the IQ test score in predicting job performance or success? There appears to be a good correlation between IQ test scores and future performance on a job that ranges from 20% to 60% depending on the type of job. Military enrolment in some countries is only possible for those with IQs not less than 85; experiments with lowering this to 80 showed that the participants could not master the job requirements to a satisfactory level. Some critics have noted that a basic level of IQ is all that is required for employment success; that beyond this basic minimum of intelligence, other factors are far more important in determining success.
Beyond basic intelligence, it would appear that a different kind of smart is required rather than more of the same general IQ. Of these factors, possibly the most important is interpersonal intelligence – ‘people smarts’. It defines the capacity to effectively interact with others to obtain their cooperation. It goes by many names but the one I prefer is social intelligence. Seen as the ability to get along well with others and secure their cooperation, it is obvious why it is such a critical factor for success. For whatever it is you must do in this world to achieve significance, you are going to need the cooperation of others and if you are unable to get along well with others, your project is dead on arrival. Social ineptitude can get you into all sorts of trouble in all sorts of places. To illustrate, I made a trip recently to consult a respected professional on some pressing personal matter. I was ushered into a waiting room with more than 20 empty seats. I was the only person in waiting so I selected one of the chairs a few steps from the doorway and made myself comfortable. Shortly afterward, another gentleman was ushered in to await his turn. To my utmost surprise, he walked right up to where I was seated and chose the seat immediately next to mine to make himself comfortable, in so doing leaving only a distance of a hand’s breadth between our shoulders. Here was a guy I’d never met before in a room with 20 or more empty seats to choose from. Why he decided to choose the seat next to me, encroaching on what I considered to be my personal space was baffling. Nevertheless, he sat there completely clueless while I considered what words to use to jab his socially numb brain into life. But he wasn’t finished yet: a short while later when the attendant peered in the doorway, looked in my direction and motioned “Sir, you may go in”, my newfound ‘friend’ decided he ought to go in first and made his move. Fortunately, I did not need to say what I was thinking; the attendant quickly stepped in with ‘Not you Sir; I meant him’ pointing in my direction. As I left the waiting area, I could not help noticing how irritated I had become and how close I was to responding to his rude behavior in an unpleasant manner. I wondered how such a guy got along in the workplace.
For in the workplace we meet people who have a propensity for acting in ways that consistently alienate others. These are people we avoid and do everything we can to stay out of their way. Some are very smart people with excellent skills on the job but they seem completely inept at dealing effectively with the feelings, intentions, and preferences of the people they work with. They do not lack IQ or cognitive smarts; they are just socially numb or dumb. They have difficulty engaging others in ways that are socially appropriate to the context. These are often people who are so preoccupied with their own personal needs and struggles that they fail to appreciate the impact of their behavior on others. They have no insight on the effect of their behavior on others. But there are others who have such insight who nevertheless choose the path of intransigent disregard for the social rights of others. Another quick illustration: It was election time in Junior High School. The voting was to take place in our classrooms so I sat in mine to vote. In those days, you were given a blank piece of paper and you voted by writing the name of your candidate on the paper. I was among the first to enter the classroom and I chose one of the seats at the back of the class. Gradually the class filled up with students and all seats were taken. Just then a friend of mine who happened to be contesting for this particular post walked in. Seeing no empty seat, he walked up to me and essentially demanded to share my seat, and my desk. I could understand somewhat why he would do that: being friends, he thought I would not mind sharing my seat. But by his choice he had completely disregarded the context: I was supposed to make a choice by vote between him and the other candidates. By sharing my seat, he had basically hijacked my vote. I had a decision to make: ask him to find a seat elsewhere or submit my vote to his hijacking regardless of who I was going to vote for. If I asked him to leave, I would be telling him indirectly I was not voting in his favor. Frankly, before he sat next to me I had already decided another candidate was better suited for the post. I chose not to ask him to leave. The ballot papers were passed round. I spread out mine and wrote down the name of the other candidate while he watched. He whispered my name in complete surprise. I had anticipated his shock, and I had prepared a response: “I’m sorry my friend.” He said nothing more at that time. Later he accosted me: “Frank, if you had voted for me I would have won.” “What do you mean?” I responded. Unknown to me then, the results were out and only one vote separated him from the winner. I truly felt sad for him, not that where he sat would have made any difference to the outcome but he did not need to endure the pain of a friend casting a vote against him. This happened more than three decades ago. At the time I thought it was unfortunate that our friendship dropped a few degrees in temperature, but I was really left with no other choice. Though I had hurt a friend, I was at peace with myself knowing I had chosen to be authentic. It was much later that I understood the social intelligence issues that played out that day. That classroom was a regular meeting place; sharing seats during class was usual when enough chairs were not available. But on that that day, the social context had changed; sharing seats conveyed a totally different meaning. In my case it meant my privacy was lost, and my decision was hijacked. To maintain my authenticity, I had to do publicly what was meant to be done privately. The result was painful but it was so because someone breached the unwritten code of social intelligence.
Frank is a cardiothoracic surgeon practicing in Ghana. His work involves mainly pediatric cardiac surgery. Apart from children's health, he's also passionate about lifestyle modifications to promote health.