The #1 Sign of Intelligence, According to Jeff Bezos

Bill Benjamin

The #1 Sign of Intelligence, According to Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos is the CEO of one of the worlds most successful companies – Amazon – who have grown at an astronomical rate, disrupting multiple industries along the way (did you know that Cloud Computing is one of Amazon’s largest and most profitable divisions, making life tough for Tech industry giants like IBM and Microsoft?) and changing the way we all shop.

So when I saw the recent article in Inc. Magazine titled “This is the Number 1 Sign of High Intelligence, According to Jeff Bezos” I immediately clicked on the link.    I was expecting his number one sign to have something to do with IQ, creativity or maybe the ability to influence and persuade (well, his sign does impact those things, but not directly).

I was surprised (and impressed) that to determine intelligence, Jeff Bezos looks for people who can admit they are wrong and change their opinions often.

According to the Inc Magazine article, “Bezos has ‘observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they'd already solved. They're open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking,’ the Amazon boss says.”

As a CEO, I hope you are thinknig about how well you model admitting you are wrong and open to considering other people's ideas.

Research Backs Up What Jeff Bezos Thinks

For our New York Times bestselling book, Performing Under Pressure, the Insitute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), conducted a 7-year study with 12,000 people.   We compared the top 10% performers to rest and found a few very specific behaviors were highly correlated with top performance.

Guess what one of those behaviors was? That’s right, an ability to admit when they were wrong and admit a mistake helped set the top 10% performers apart from average performers.    Not only did admitting being wrong lead to top performance, it also was one of the most highly correlated behaviors with people who had recently received a promotion.  This is something you want to be looking for in your next generation of leaders.

Why Can’t We All be Super Smart Then?

If admitting when we are wrong leads to being seen as being highly intelligence (according one very smart and successful man) and research says it’s highly correlated with top performance, then why doesn’t every CEO and senior leader excel at being wrong? 

Turns out being smart requires Emotional Intelligence!

It's Emotional

Cognitively, most of us know when we are wrong, or if someone points out a mistake or fallacy in our thinking, we can see it logically.  What makes admitting we are wrong or admitting to a mistake so difficult is our emotional brain.   Our Emotional brain is part of our limbic system that protects us from threats and will initiate our defensive, fight or flight responses if it feels under attack.

When a bus is coming at you and you need to jump out of the way, your emotional system (specifically the Amygdala), will release chemicals into our body and brain that gets us ready for fight or flight.  In addition to adrenaline coursing through our body, the emotional system releases chemicals that narrows our thinking, focuses us on the threat and causes us to move to default behaviors.  

When a bus is coming at us, this is a very effective system.

What Happens When We Realize We are Wrong

Imagine that you are giving a presentation to your board and someone you don’t respect and don’t have a great relationship with starts challenging what you are saying, inferring that what you are presenting is wrong – and they are doing it in a demeaning way.     To your emotional brain, this is like a bus coming at you.

If it was only our cognitive brain responding, we could calmly hear what the person is saying, evaluate if their information is worth incorporating, and then adjust our response accordingly.

If only it worked that way. The reason that isn’t what always happens is that our Emotional system (the amygdala) will respond up to 100 times faster than your cognitive brain when it perceives threat!   

So when that difficult person starts telling us we are wrong in front our bosses, our emotional brain sees that as a threat and springs into action, causing us to move to more narrow thinking (we can’t hear what they are saying ), we feel a need to be right and have more certainty that we are not wrong (we dig in to our point of view), and we move to defensive behaviors (that typically aren’t skillful). 

To learn more about the brain science of emotions (video #2) and to learn a strategy that you can use to manage your emotions when are triggered (video #3), click here 

Jeff Bezos is telling you that you need Emotional Intelligence

By identifying the ability to admit we are wrong as his number one sign that someone is intelligent, the famous Amazon founder is telling you that you need to develop your Emotional Intelligence so that admitting you are wrong or that you made a mistake doesn’t trigger your natural emotional defenses.

The good news is that the emotional brain can learn, so if you can gain self-awareness of what’s happening to your brain when it feels threatened and then learn practical strategies to manage those emotions, you can develop a new default behavior, like admitting when you are wrong and being open to opposing points of view.  That will help you with that difficult board member and it's great modelling for your people!

Jeff Bezos (and others) will think you are highly intelligent if you do!