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When fear gets in the way of intelligent behavior

Dan Bobinski

Employers usually want to hire intelligent people. No doubt you’ve heard about standard IQ tests, but the truth is those tests are limited in what they measure, and they don’t help us much in identifying true strengths. To discuss true intelligence, we must consider a much broader view.

Essentially, standard IQ tests are okay for measuring one’s ability to memorize and retain information, one’s capacity for language and math puzzles, and one’s ability to take tests. But that’s about it, so standard IQ tests have only so much value.

Besides, people with high IQ’s have done a lot of stupid things. One of the highest IQ’s on record belonged to a woman named Tina Christopherson. Her IQ was a blazing 189 (100 is average and 140 is considered genius), but Christopherson’s 189 score didn’t help her much in the common sense department.

As it happened, Ms. Christopherson was afraid she would die of stomach cancer like her mother. To ward off her mother’s fate, she went on long fasts during which she had no food but drank great quantities of water, sometimes as much as four gallons a day. The woman ended up drowning on dry land at the age of 29 because she pushed her kidneys into failure and water migrated into her lungs. Despite an exceptional IQ, the woman destroyed herself through irrational fears and ignorance.

Through this example we can see that IQ is only one way to consider the bigger picture of intelligence. When it comes to practical matters, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner defines intelligence as “the capacity to solve [real world] problems and to fashion products.”

Therefore, if we look through Gardner’s perspective, Tina Christopherson lacked true intelligence. Despite her phenomenal IQ, she was unable to muster her brainpower to solve her problems or fashion the products that her brilliant mind was capable of constructing.

Gardner also theorizes that people usually have two or three areas of intelligence. Overall, he identifies nine different areas of intelligence, which he labels as logical/mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. If you’re interested in finding out which of these are strongest for you, do an Internet search for “Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Test,” as free tests for this are available online. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea for your entire team to identify their areas of intelligence.

According to Gardner’s model, if people are going to be intelligent at work, they must become adept at solving problems and/or fashioning products, in whatever capacity of intelligence they have.

That said, know that fear can inhibit anyone’s ability to be intelligent. Fears, be they real or imagined, can be so powerful they will fog how we think, no matter how much brain power God provided us. If she were alive, Tina Christopherson would probably testify to that.

The problem with fear is it’s often a Catch 22: People can usually get past a fear if they can think rationally enough, but they can’t think rationally enough when they are overcome with fear.

Therefore, I recommend people take time to inventory their fears when they are in a calm environment and feeling in-control. A safe person to act as a sounding board is also helpful.

If a manager has a good relationship with his/her team members, the manager can sometimes serve in the sounding-board role.

Regardless of who is helping, one trick for getting past fears is to do so mentally. Even the thought of some fears can put people into a state of anxiety, but that’s okay. The idea is to confront the anxiety and stay there long enough that the nerves start to wear off. Once we realize that the fear is not going to harm us, we can begin thinking more rationally about the best ways to respond in the face of what frightens us.

The idea is to expose ourselves to what we’re afraid of enough times and with enough successful outcomes to re-write how our minds react to what scares us.

Granted, the anxiety may never disappear completely, but with focus and practice we can build enough confidence to be able to think clearly, even in the face of fears.

J. Martin Klotsche, former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, once said that “Intelligence is derived from two words – inter and legere – inter meaning ‘between’ and legere meaning ‘to choose’ An intelligent person, therefore, is one who has learned ‘to choose between.’”

When we can think clearly – even in the face of fears – we can choose wisely among our various options. In this way, both Gardner’s and Klotsche’s perspectives are right. To be intelligent, we can work on removing the fears that prevent us from solving problems and fashioning products.

Therefore, when hiring people, consider their ability to make wise choices despite their fears, and you will be hiring truly intelligent people.

Dan Bobinski is a management trainer, best-selling author and director at the Center for Workplace Excellence. He makes his home in Boise. Reach him at (208) 375-7606 or dan@workplace-excellence.com.

About Dan Bobinski