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How are you smart?

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” A. Einstein

Before you wonder whether there is a mistake in the way the title is worded, I will just reassure you that it is meant to say exactly that. It comes from a quote by American psychologist Howard Gardner that says “It's not how smart you are that matters, what really counts is how you are smart”.

The theory of multiple intelligences

It was 1983 when Gardner introduced for the first time the theory of multiple intelligences in his book “Frames of mind”, a concept that was meant to offer an alternative to the established belief that only a single, quantifiable intelligence existed. Traditionally, when thinking about the word intelligence, we immediately associated it to a person’s IQ, something measurable that we are born with and that is extremely difficult to change.

On the other hand, Gardner identified different types of intellectual competencies:

  • Existential;
  • Intrapersonal;
  • Visual / spatial;
  • Naturalistic;
  • Logical;
  • Linguistic;
  • Interpersonal;
  • Kinaesthetic;
  • Musical.

As the names respectively indicate, they relate to specific abilities that one may have in different fields. Each of us has all of them at different levels of mastery depending partly on genetics and partly on experience. The most important point is that we can all potentially learn how to improve them, should we wish to.  Generally, they exist independently but are, at the same time, deeply interconnected to each other, and their combination determines who we are as well as how we process information, behave in specific personal and professional situations or approach certain tasks.

Over the years, Gardner’s theory has met with a lot criticism by many psychologists and educators because, according to them, it is based on a quite broad definition of intelligence and lacks empirical experience. They consider the different types of intelligence simple representations of a person’s talents and unique traits rather than someone’s actual intellectual strengths. However, regardless of whether we agree with Gardner or with his critics, the theory of multiple intelligences can be very useful in the development of our career as management consultants.

It is undeniable that in both our educational system and the majority of work contexts, there is a definite dominance of logical-mathematical and, to a lesser degree, linguistic competences as the key performance indicators of whether we can succeed in role or in a specific career path. It is very common, especially at the early stages of our careers, to be asked to take a test that evaluates how logical or articulate we are. Although this approach can certainly provide accurate, measurable, and comparable insights on some of our competences, it has a very narrow focus and can fail to make optimal use of an individual’s specific abilities. Organisations often speak about the importance of encouraging diverse thinking, creativity and unlocking someone’s full potential but may end up running the risk of having underperforming and demotivated employees just because they are in the wrong role or carry out tasks that do not leverage their most highly developed intelligences.

The 3 key applications of the theory to your career

As a professional in the early stages of your career (but to be honest, this is actually useful at any stage of someone’s professional life), the benefits of using this theory can be threefold:

  1. To better understand yourself as a professional

Last month I wrote about the importance of self-leadership and the need to understand your strengths and weaknesses. This theory is a useful framework to help you identify your abilities and intellectual strengths, the tasks and roles you excel in as well as your preferred ways to grow and progress. It goes without saying that having high levels of clarity on these factors could be a great way to make better choices when applying for a job and might help you look beyond the traditional options and consider a wider variety of opportunities instead. It will also help you realise, that even though you may access and process data and information in an unconventional way, you may still do well in a certain role. By aligning your intelligences to the work that you do, you also increase your motivation and satisfaction and achieve higher levels of engagement and performance. In addition, pinpointing and leveraging your specific combination of intelligences can give you a true competitive advantage, especially if, throughout your career, you do not limit yourself to sharpening your main ones but you also work at improving the less-developed ones. These can prove to be an invaluable source of transferable skills and innovative ways of approaching your work that makes you stand out from your peers.

  1. To work in a team and with clients

The theory can also help you understand how other people may perceive the way you approach your work and respond in specific situations. And, in turn, increase your awareness of how they may see things from a completely different perspective. Recognising that people may have abilities and experiences that are different from yours also helps you accept the fact that your way is not necessarily the only way and there is a lot that can be learnt from everyone you work with. Very often the success of a team or a project is determined by how well you manage to suspend your judgement and understand someone else’s perspective. The same can be said about the creation of successful client relationships and the ability to communicate successfully with others, even when it comes to handling difficult conversations.

  1. To improve your problem-solving ability and work in an uncertain environment successfully

The ever-changing work dynamics and the increasingly complex problems that you will certainly face throughout your career require the deployment of many of these intelligences at the same time, in order to find innovative problem-solving strategies and solutions. Conventional solutions and ways of thinking are not enough anymore to respond to the new problems and challenges that we need to overcome daily. Being aware of your unique combination of intelligences and experiences and knowing how to leverage them can be a great way to prepare for change, uncertainty and instability and know how to turn them into potential opportunities for yourself and your organisation.

So, next time that you reflect on your strengths and abilities, try to look at them from a different point of view, consider which combination of intelligences you have and how they can be brought together and have a positive effect on your everyday work and career progress. Don’t focus on how smart you are but on how you are smart!

In my next article, I will reflect on the key role of failure in the development of our careers and I will look at the reasons why we should constantly try to step outside our comfort zone and welcome change as ways to improve ourselves and develop a competitive advantage in the workplace.


Valentina Lorenzon is a member of the CMCE Coordination group and editor of the CMCE newsletter.

Thursday 16th December 2021
Clouds at sunset