Giftedness as a career killer

Article by Tanja Baudson in the journal Zeit

There are many prejudices against highly gifted people. But that is not the decisive reason why some of them have a hard time professionally. Giftedness researcher Tanja Gabriele Baudson from the Vinzenz Pallotti University in Vallendar explains what gifted people do wrong and how companies can make good use of their talent.

Tanja Gabriele Baudson is a psychologist at the Vinzenz Pallotti University in Vallendar and chairwoman of the gifted association Mensa in Germany. © Vincent Flamion


ZEIT ONLINE: Ms. Baudson, one of the things you research is how highly gifted people find their way in the workplace. Is giftedness a characteristic that helps you in your job?

Tanja Gabriele Baudson: First of all, it depends on the field in which one is highly gifted. Most often, the discussion about giftedness is about intelligence. This is because intelligence can be reliably measured in the form of the intelligence quotient, even if this is not uncontroversial. Among other things, there are calls for greater consideration to be given to cultural characteristics. But if we stick to high intelligence as a high talent, studies show that it goes hand in hand with professional success. That's no wonder, because it allows people to understand and implement things more quickly. When you join somewhere new, you also quickly see ways to optimize things. And this is where the part about giftedness being a hindrance to a career begins.

ZEIT ONLINE: In what way?

Baudson: Workflows and processes in the profession are often evolved structures that have been in place for years. If someone says that something could be improved if only this and that were changed, which is considered established and immutable, there can be conflicts. Then, on the one hand, you have highly talented people with their desire to optimize and, on the other hand, colleagues who are skeptical about it. This is just one example of a problem that some highly gifted people have in their professional lives: They have difficulty adapting. But when you come to a company or institution and start working there, that's exactly what you have to do. It often means that you have to give up some of your self-determination. If you can do that, you're encouraged by the people around you.Baudson: Yes, some people don't find it easy to go through that process. After all, making decisions for oneself and having the freedom to shape one's own tasks and pursue goals are particularly important to many. Highly gifted people see this as an opportunity to develop their potential. In addition, there are various prejudices against gifted people, which makes it even more difficult for them to fit into groups; in technical language, this is also referred to as fitting in.

ZEIT ONLINE: What kind of prejudices?

Baudson: Certain stereotypes of giftedness and the gifted. Most people think, for example: Highly gifted people are particularly intelligent, so they also perform particularly well. While this tendency is true, it is not as pronounced as is commonly assumed. Even at school, differences in performance can only be attributed to intelligence to the tune of just under 30 percent, according to a 2015 meta-analysis by brain researcher Gerhard Roth. Other factors contribute the remaining 70 percent, including diligence, motivation and popularity with the teacher. In the profession - here, of course, there are differences, depending on the industry, position and type of work - it should be basically similar: Intelligence is an advantage, but not a given.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does that mean that colleagues expect highly gifted people to be overachievers?

Baudson: It goes a bit in that direction, yes. But precisely in these expectations, of course, there is also the prejudice that all highly gifted people have certain characteristics and behaviors. But it is not that simple, what we are discussing here are only tendencies, we are not yet far with research on gifted people in the profession. One thing is certain: The typical gifted person who has a certain profession and has certain problems with it does not exist. The group of highly gifted people is very heterogeneous.

ZEIT ONLINE: Are there certain professions and industries in which gifted people work particularly often?

Baudson: I don't want to name individual professions here, however, because gifted people can basically be anywhere. In general, many of them are very inquisitive, and high intelligence often brings that with it. For example, they have the desire to really understand complex relationships. This succeeds in professions that are either very varied or that go into great depth. In the hierarchy, highly gifted people tend to be found at the higher levels, but that is not a must. Often, the upper levels have a certain distance to the real thing and are associated with administrative tasks, which can also have a deterrent effect. Because highly talented people like to work freely and self-determined, they are often self-employed.

ZEIT ONLINE: You are highly gifted yourself and have chosen the academic path to research for yourself as a professor.

Baudson: Yes, that probably fulfills the cliché. But I also know highly gifted people who are, for example, landscape gardeners or streetcar drivers. They then develop their talents in their free time. Others have gone into business and work in management positions, not necessarily at the very top, but rather in the levels below. They are often expected to move up. People then say things like, "She's highly talented, she has what it takes to be the boss of the company. But she's still a department head. Something special should come from her more often!" The problem here is not even the sometimes high expectations of colleagues. Often, the fact that the gifted person is expected to do so much also creates a certain distance: he or she stands outside the norm, outside the circle of colleagues. Of course, this makes it more difficult to feel part of the group. But this is not because of the giftedness, but because of how it is perceived. It's similar with another cliché: that gifted people are often socially difficult. People imagine a mad genius or an obdurate nerd.

ZEIT ONLINE: And you don't want them in the group?

Baudson: Yes, highly gifted people then sometimes feel left out. It can take decades before they are able to deal with this problem. Most of them also don't usually address their giftedness on their own at first, but at some point it can become an issue. The fact that these people sometimes keep their giftedness a secret shows that there is still work to be done. Ultimately, it is a normal diversity characteristic, i.e. one of diversity. One person has a reading and spelling disability, another has a migrant background, and the third is highly gifted. This should be dealt with calmly and without prejudice.

ZEIT ONLINE: What can companies do in this regard?

Baudson: The right corporate culture can achieve a lot. If managers set an example that diversity and mutual appreciation are important to them, this can lead to gifted people not only feeling more comfortable in the company, but also working better according to their strengths. This includes not only managers but all employees exchanging ideas among themselves on all kinds of problems and solving them that way. And, sure, it's certainly beneficial when managers are sensitive to suggestions for change, so that everyone feels noticed and considered: those who make the suggestions and those who have to come to terms with change more reluctantly. All of this can help high-achievers feel more a part of the team. But some of them still won't fully fit in.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is that?

Baudson: Most highly gifted people naturally want to perform well, which they usually do, and they want to be successful and recognized. But it's in the second half of their professional lives, when some others begin to sit back, that they often find themselves once again in a state of optimism. As a study from Austria shows, many highly gifted people from the fifth decade of life onwards have the urge to leave something lasting behind them. They want to create something for posterity - away from their own children - that will outlast their own death.

ZEIT ONLINE: Don't all people have that in some way?

Baudson: Yes, of course, but the extent to which this actually manifests itself in action varies: Here, highly gifted people seem to have a greater drive for action. As a scientist, such an attempt to create something for posterity can be, for example, working out a new theory that becomes standard knowledge. It can also be something away from the job, an artistic thing, writing a book. Those who try to leave something lasting behind in their jobs turn up the heat once again, try to influence decisions and initiate changes - which can again lead to the problems mentioned.

ZEIT ONLINE: What can gifted individuals themselves do to quickly fit into a team?

Baudson: Remain calm. They should accept that they have their own needs and therefore feel different from their colleagues in some places. But ultimately, that's true for everyone. As the Cologne native says, "Every Jeck is different." If you accept this as a highly gifted person, you can deal with any minor difficulties much more confidently. Because you realize that it is not the giftedness itself that is the problem, but how the environment reacts to it. Let's take the example of optimization: If you make a suggestion for optimization and your colleagues don't react very enthusiastically, then this is not necessarily directed against you as a highly gifted person. Perhaps the colleagues are just uncertain about the possible change.

04.04.2023, written in German by Christian Heinrich




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