Why Smart People Underperform

Why do smart people like you and me often underperform?


In the Harvard Business Review article, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform”, psychiatrist and author, Dr. Ed Hallowell, reflects on the negative impact of stress and overload on the behavior of leaders in corporate America.  Dr. Hallowell observes that under stress we exhibit “Attention Deficient Traits”or “ADT”.  This is reflected in short attention span, irritability, inability to focus and make choices and decisions. In all of this we are driven to distraction and underperformance. 

Examine the behavior of your leaders and coworkers. Does any of this seem familiar? Or ask your colleagues if they observe some of these traits in your personality. I confess in many ways I could identify with Dr. Hallowell’s findings.

As the economic climate calls for “more with less”,overloaded lives can be a great hindrance to the high performance expected from our corporate leaders and knowledge workers. While this is a corporate problem the solution lies in personal ownership. If ignored, this will not only lead to economical setback but will carry a very heavy personal price that we cannot ignoreI speak from personal experience


What are the key causes for stress and overload?For most of us who use our cognitive, mental, and relational skills as our main tools of trade, the primary cause is work and information overload. In this e-letter the focus will be on work overload.
Work overload is NOThaving too much work; rather it is the feeling that comes from the loss of control and the resentment we develop from unrealistic demands and distractions. So what can you do?

  • Take Control: Most of us have the capacity for more control than we believe. If you are a valuable member of the team, you deserve and are entitled to reasonable control. Assuming your boss is reasonable and sane, he or she will respect you for exercising control in a chaotic world. If not, look for another boss.
  • Focus on Your Highest Value Roles: Highest value roles leverage your character strengths and core values. While these roles give you a great sense of fulfillment and greatest productivity, they also stretch your skills and competencies as you grow to meet new challenges.
  • Practice Batch Processing:  Block regularly scheduled time segments for similar types of work. This will help your mind develop effective patterns of thinking and behavior.  Amazingly, this not only saves you time but also uses far less mental energy and greatly improves personal effectiveness as it gives you greater control.
  • Avoid Technology Empowered Urgency: Unless you are a firefighter, there are very few important and urgent issues in your work life. Prioritize your time blocking to support your high value roles and important issues that relate to them. Turn off technologies that lead to interruptions and distractions that feed the destructive culture of urgency.
  • Control Draining People: Unproductive meetings or unteachable people sap your energy at the expense of your important and teachable people. You cannot afford this.
  • Increase Your Thinking Capacity: As a knowledge worker your value contribution is directly related to your thinking capacity. With increased work complexity, your thinking capacity is directly related to how and how much time you spend thinking. So think.

Yes, this is all counterculture and may be hard to do.  Find a friend or a coach to help you. You cannot afford not to. 

 Join the conversation in a complimentary 60 minute webinar sponsored by Strive, a firm committed to excellence in Corporate Board Leadership and effectiveness.


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