The Intelligence Matrix and People Who Don't Know Where They Fit

Where do you fall on the smart scale?

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I don’t know who the smartest person on earth is, but I know there is only one. Only one of us can be the dumbest person on earth and I don’t know who that person is either. Suffice it to say that the rest of us fit somewhere between the smartest and the dumbest people on earth. After spending a short bit of time with someone, I think most of us can assess where on the “smart scale” that individual would fall.

Each of us also harbors our own perception of where we fall on the smart scale. Most, but not all, smart people have a pretty good idea that they are smart, and while they may not be likely to admit it, I suspect that most but not all of those who aren’t the sharpest tacks probably know that, too.

Thus, I have come to realize there are four types of people. Imagine a square. Label the left side of the square with a scale from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top, denoting “actual intelligence.” Label the bottom of the square with a like scale—zero at the left, 10 at the right—denoting “perceived intelligence”—defining one’s perception of their own level of acumen. Now, divide the square into four quadrants. I contend that everyone with whom I interact can be defined by one of them.


Actual Intelligence High / Perceived Intelligence High (AH/PH). These are smart people who know they are smart. I take little issue with AH/PH people. While they may present themselves as confident or arrogant, they back it up with commensurate knowledge and experience, and when called upon to perform to expectations are generally able to do so.

Actual Intelligence Low/ Perceived Intelligence Low (AL/PL). Stupid people who know they are stupid. Here again, I have little problem with AL/PL. I recall one of my suppliers stating in a meeting once, “You know, Matt, I’m not a science rocket.” He wasn’t, and were I to find myself in need of assistance in solving a polynomial equation, he would not be my guy. On the other hand, an AL/PL exhibits no pretentions that he is smarter than he is and has nothing to prove. I can work with that person.

Actual Intelligence High / Perceived Intelligence Low (AH/PL). Smart people who think they are dumb. I can work with these people, too. Self-deprecating in nature, and gliding through life with an unnecessary inferiority complex and lack of self-confidence, an AH/PL is an agreeable sort who can be called upon to solve problems and perform analysis as necessary, but who needs a little extra encouragement from time to time.

Actual Intelligence Low / Perceived Intelligence High (AL/PH). Dumb people who think they are smart, or people who are too dumb to realize how dumb they are. These people drive me crazy. Like AH/PH, they too come across as arrogant, but when the intelligence façade is removed, there is nothing behind it.

My thoughts go back a decade to my days leading a contract metal finishing operation and my attempts to work through a difference in opinion with a customer over whether a finish met the customer’s specification. The customer was represented by a procurement specialist who was classic AL/PH. In other words, despite his air of self-importance and his penchant for coming across as an expert on everything, the poor fellow just wasn’t smart—an observation shared by just about everybody but him.

In an attempt to reach some level of consensus with regard to our dispute over the specification, I suggested that we call on a metallurgist to assist us in reaching a determination.

This particular procurement specialist argued adamantly, repeatedly and over several conference calls that he did not feel that consulting a “metaleorologist” (a non-word he pronounced as metal-eeyore-ologist) was necessary. Each time he used that term, it was all I could do to keep myself from laughing aloud, thinking quietly that perhaps if one were in need of advice as to how metallic objects affected global weather patterns, a metaleorologist might be a good person to ask. In the end, it was difficult to settle on any course of action with an individual who wasn’t smart enough to comprehend the issue.

I find the strategy for dealing with an AL/PH is to continually suggest ideas and solutions until that AL/PH finally accepts one, and then to do everything possible to convince him that the idea was his own, fueling his perception of his own superior intellect while simultaneously reaching a workable path forward. That is the only method I have found for dealing with one of the more challenging personalities in business.

So what quadrant are you in? If asked to put myself in one of the four quadrants I would perhaps arrogantly place my name in the AH/PH quadrant, meaning I believe I’m relatively smart. If I’m wrong though, that means I am an AL/PH. What if I’m not smart enough to realize I’m actually stupid? I find that thought a bit disturbing.  

Originally published in the March 2016 issue.