KnockoutTime and time again, we’ve heard successful people make an interesting claim: hiring employees who are smarter than you is a great business practice. 

Here’s Phil Libin, co-founder and CEO of Evernote: “Hiring people smarter than yourself is the long-term answer to your micromanagement problem. I take it very seriously, and I encourage all of my direct reports to apply it to their direct reports, all the way down the organization to the most junior levels. This is hard to do, and we’re certainly not perfect at executing the rule all the time, but we come pretty close.”

And Ryan Blair, author of Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: “It is my goal to be in awe of every person I hire. I want to see traits in her or him that are more dynamic or more positive than my own abilities in that area, because I know that simply by working with that person, I will be able to grow and the company will prosper, thanks to this continuous reach for improvement.”

But while experts are extolling the virtues of hiring people who are better than their bosses, employees are often grumbling about the very same thing. How many times have we heard friends, relatives, coworkers, or ourselves complain about incompetent leaders and managers. Employees, by and large, still ascribe to a traditionally hierarchical approach to the workplace: we want our bosses to be smarter than us; if they aren’t, their leadership is illegitimate, and we feel they should be removed from their positions.

Employees – it’s time we readjust our thinking. If we’re smarter than our bosses, then, by most accounts, our bosses are actually doing something right. With that, I offer three tips for employees who find that they are smarter than their bosses, with the hopes that they’ll stop complaining and start seeing the benefits of their situations.

Oh, and if our CEO, Miles, is reading this – these totally are not culled from personal experience. You’re somehow both the best CEO ever and the smartest guy in the room. Please don’t fire me.

1. Realize that They Made the Right Decision

According to Blair, the semi-legendary Bill Gates makes a habit of hiring people who are smarter than he is.

Libin jokes that, thanks to his hiring practices, he’s the dumbest person at Evernote – and maybe that’s exactly why his company was Inc.’s Company of the Year in 2011.

The point is: if your boss hired you, and you are smarter than they are, then your boss made the right decision. You may be smarter, but your boss clearly knows how to manage. Take your boss’s willingness to hire a smarter subordinate as a sign of your boss’s strong management practices.

And if your boss didn’t hire a smarter employee on purpose? If your boss still manages you poorly and tries to assert dominance? Recognize that you may be in a position to change that.

2. Flaunt What You’ve Got 

Your boss hired a smarter employee because they saw your potential. They saw the talent you could bring to the table. Don’t go hiding your light under a bushel, then.

It can be tempting to downplay your skills. You don’t want to seem like you’re challenging the boss’s authority. However, downplaying your skills is exactly what the boss doesn’t want you to do. Smarter employees are good for the company – show off your skills and watch your employer grow.

3. Learn from Each Other

Of course, while you’re busy showing off your skills, don’t let it all go to your head. You may be smarter than your boss with respect to the job that you do, but a boss who knows to hire smarter employees is a boss who knows how to manage a workplace. You’re great at what you do – and, chances are, your boss is great at what they do.

So learn from your boss: see the way they manage people who are smarter than them; watch how they lead a group of people who excel in the very fields that the boss fails. Use these lessons to inform your own habits as an employee. You may be a boss one day, and you can draw from your own bosses’ best practices. And even if you never are in charge of a team, you’ll still be working with other people all your life, both in and out of the office. You won’t always be the smartest person in the room.

And, of course, a great boss knows to learn from their employees as well. As Libin says, “I interact with roughly 30 Evernote people on a daily basis, and I can say without hesitation that they all do their jobs better than I could hope to. Every time we have a discussion about work, I learn something.”

Of course, when all is said and done, some bosses who hire smarter employees are incompetent. If your boss really is terrible — well, that’s a much sadder story for another day.



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