Last weekend, my local public-radio station ran a 2009 interview with Don Sobol, author of the Encyclopedia Brown series. Sobol talked about his 10-year-old mystery-solving main character and said that one of his most important tasks was making a really smart kid likeable to his readers. That caught my attention because I am constantly on the prowl for strategies to help really smart grownups be likeable.

Those of us who work in higher education have the opportunity to interact with a fair number of people who seem to think that being smart always trumps being congenial. For the most part, they do not mean to be unlikeable; it just doesn’t occur to them to make an effort to be pleasant. Their often standoffish or surly behavior prompts others to avoid them, which creates a nasty and perpetual cycle. “They are rude to me, so I have no choice but to rude to them.” I find this sad, but I can’t exactly ring them up and suggest they take a course on emotional intelligence, hire an executive coach, or start taking nice pills. But when someone asks for my advice, well, then I get an opportunity to have an important conversation -- like the one I one had with one of my former graduate students when she called to ask for career advice.

She was ready to leave her current job, but was finding it hard to find a new one. Her experience and talent were not in question, so why did she keep getting interviews but no job offers? The answer, I feared, was that people found her insufferable. Because the constant rejection had compromised her usual high degree of self-confidence, I decided it would be a bad idea to ask her if she had considered being less of an annoying know-it-all. Instead, I took an indirect route. “How do you think people perceive you?” I asked.

Without having to consider her response, she blurted, “They would say I am spot on in my analysis, efficient, and generally the strongest member of any group. I am, hands down, the most intelligent. No question.”

“So, do you have any friends at work?” I inquired next.

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“Friends? No, of course not. Those people are really not friend material,” she replied.

“You know,” I countered, “that might actually be a problem for you.” This led us into an interesting conversation about the importance of letting others discover your brilliance rather than offering daily reminders about it, and the power of making a game out of being kind when such behavior doesn’t feel natural. “Fake nice can actually work,” I explained. “At the very least, quit complaining about how stupid your colleagues are.”

“But I am not trying to be liked, I am trying to get things done,” she responded.

“Think of what you could accomplish if people actually wanted to help you,” I replied.

What advice have you given to students or colleagues who delight in making others feel small? Have you seen excessive arrogance hold people back? Do you have any tips for gently increasing self-awareness in others? Do you ever engage in fake niceness in order to get things done?

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[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user eperales.]