Do Brilliant Minds Breed Bad Teamwork?

Brilliant Minds & Teamwork Image by:Chechi Pe

A call came in from the Human Resources Director of a large prestigious law firm. The challenge?

Build more respect and teamwork between the most brilliant legal minds in the law practice and the support staff.

And not just any brilliant minds. These were the elite attorneys in cutting edge and high powered niches, all with double (some triple) degrees.

Support staff felt demoralized. Some had left. Turnover was on the rise. The HR director quipped in exasperation:

Do brilliant minds breed bad teamwork?!

Certainly everyone deserves to be treated with respect. HR and the attorney relations department addressed the few cases of actual verbal abuse. Yet the HR director wanted better daily interactions, teamwork, and morale throughout the organization.

She gave me examples of the interaction between the super educated brilliant attorneys and the support staff. I also spoke with support staff.

There was good news. The hurdles were from different levels of drive for achievement — not from a deeply rooted disrespect for support staff.

Now for the solution. The HR director noted that access to the attorneys’ time was very limited. So we first held workshops with the support staff to rebuild morale and build skill in supporting high achievers.

It was remarkable to see the support staff zealously embrace these basic beliefs of brilliant minds:

  1. Commitment turns intelligence into brilliance. “I am always learning — please do the same.”
  2. Facilitate and sustain my achievement or get out of the way.
  3. The organization expects me to hit the high bar. Please jump higher with me!
  4. Shine at what you do so I can continue to shine at what I do.
  5. Come at me with solutions to problems — not just the problem! Otherwise, get out of the way.

Support staff remarked that this picture was one of continuous striving and learning not a desire to demean. They had never perceived it that way.

From this awareness, we re-mapped how to speak and behave in support of these high achievers.

Some say it is unfair to ask the support staff to learn new support skills instead of asking high achieving attorneys to change their ways.

Yet, high achieving revenue producing professionals respond, “If you ask me to put the feelings of teamwork ahead of results, the organization will achieve less. Why can’t we all step it up and achieve more?”

Success lies in both. Put limits on the demeaning behaviors, like verbal abuse, and train support staff, as we did, to work from the high achiever’s view. It transformed attitudes, performance, respect, and teamwork!

So to answer the initial question — Do brilliant minds breed bad teamwork? No. But a difference in expectations, drive, and goals, does.

From professional experience to your success,
Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™

©2011 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish the content of this post, please first email for terms of use. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach™, delivers coaching, consulting, training, and keynotes on customer service, customer experience, teamwork, and leading change. She turns interaction obstacles into business success. See this site for workshop outlines, keynote footage, and customer results.

6 Responses to “Do Brilliant Minds Breed Bad Teamwork?”

  1. Kate,

    I really like this post because it illuminates what happens when judgements are made or conclusions are drawn based on perceptions. By helping the support staff understand the “basic beliefs of brilliant minds”, their perspective about the attorneys changed. Wouldn’t our working environments be so much better if we learned that teamwork involves more than working together? It involves knowing how to work together. And you can’t do that well without knowing each other.


  2. Valerie Iravani says:

    Hi Kate,

    This is a great example of the misunderstandings that plague our world today – especially the corporate world. As a manager, I help others “reframe” their understanding of a situation by making sure there is an understanding from both sides of the situation. As long as there is any understanding, we can make honest assessments and take action, rather than taking action based on false assumptions and defensive thoughts. I’ll be passing along this article for quite a while. Thanks for the post!

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Valerie,
      Honored that you find this post valuable to pass on for a long time. I thought this example would highlight the solvable mistunderstandings and you have validated it.

      Many thanks and warmest regards,

  3. Liz Weber says:

    Kate – Once again you nailed the core issue: Clarity of desire! I see this same issue with most of my clients as well. Most employees – regardless of position – want to do good work & perform well each day. However, without clarity of values, vision & priorities, the various levels of staff and departments unintentionally work at odds with one another and conflicts & tension ensue. From the most to least formally educated, everyone can contribute, when they just know what they are all working towards!

    Kudos again Kate!


  4. PM Hut says:

    Hi Kate,

    I remember a few years ago when I was working in a company, a new person was about to be hired, he was technical and very smart.

    On his second interview, we sensed there will be bad blood between him and another technical person (who’s also very smart). We decided not to go for the hiring.

    I think that the answer to your question is “yes”, brilliant minds breed bad team work, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

    PS: You might be interested in reading this post: There is an “I” in the team.

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