Football men exercising, Harvard. (LOC). Bain News Service, ca. 1910

In The NFL, Don’t Be Smarter Than Your Boss (like all jobs)

Forrest ChristianCareers 3 Comments

Greg McElroy’s alleged Wonderlic score has been leaked and it’s created a buzz. The Wonderlic is a part of the bevy of tests the NFL puts draftees through and generally measures what is known as “general mental ability”.

SEC standout quarterback McElroy’s problem is that his Wonderlic score is almost 2 times as high as the average NFL quarterback. And QBs are known as the smartest guys on the team (although centers and offensive tackles have higher scores). If a coach is going to add value to McElroy’s work as a player, he’s going to have to be able to “think bigger” so that he can provide context for this young guy.

And there’s the problem, according to Mike Florio of NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk.

Florio writes that “scoring too high [on Wonderlic] can be as much of a problem as scoring too low.”

Football coaches want to command the locker room. Being smarter than the individual players makes that easier. Having a guy in the locker room who may be smarter than every member of the coaching staff can be viewed as a problem — or at a minimum as a threat to the egos of the men who hope to be able when necessary to outsmart the players, especially when trying in some way to manipulate them.

The commenters on that post couldn’t understand why a coach wouldn’t want someone who is smart in the locker room. I think the issue may come down to the fact that most people have never managed anyone. Florio explained why he thought coaches don’t want really smart players playing for them, saying that coaches could see it as undermining their authority.

Interestingly, he points out that the only NFL-er known to have gotten a perfect 50 out of 50 on the Wonderlic, Harvard’s Pat McInally, has stated previously that his Wonderlic score hurt him in the draft. (He’s now employed by the Wonderlic Corporation as a shill.)

It’s interesting since this is exactly what I have been arguing about you Hidden High Potentials: your bosses are smaller than you are (in their ability to handle complexity). That produces problems. Your boss

  • cannot set context for you or add value to your work
  • cannot see the full value of your contribution since your work’s complexity (or the problems that it solves) are outside of his ability to handle in his mind
  • resents having someone who seems to threaten his authority because you are bigger than he is

It doesn’t matter whether you are in the NFL or the local grocery store. Being able to handle more complexity than your boss is a recipe for failure. Overachievers are despised more than underachievers.

So keep your head down.

And flub some of those Wonderlic answers.

Comments 3

  1. This might be the most inherently engaging (to me) article about football I’ve ever read. Not to hate on football; it’s just not particularly interesting to me personally. My husband tells me that the book The Blind Side by Michael Lewis is very good and I have reason to believe him having seen the movie and read other books by Lewis. I’ve read Liar’s Poker and Moneyball. Both are great.

    This comment isn’t exactly related to your post’s main point, although I appreciate the comparison you present between test scores / employability as a pro footballer and level of work / employability in other areas.

  2. Hi Forrest,

    I’m very intrigued – confused! – about how someone’s IQ relates to Jaquesian ideas such as mode, stratum, time span etc.

    Jaques – in his book Human Capability – rejects any correlation between his concepts and IQ, if I remember correctly. (There’s a quote in the book along the lines of how an IQ of 82, 110 or 145 doesn’t relate to any particular level).

    Yet I’m pretty sure that the charts I’ve seen depicting how increasing individual capacities correlate with increasingly complex professional roles look rather similar, whether drawn from Jaques or IQ.

    Any thoughts? What is going on?

    Here are some IQ- jobs graphics I’ve just found on Google: (a more revealing graphic)



  3. Post

    There are a legion of problems with Intelligent Quotient, not least of all is “what does it really measure?” The tests in question here don’t really do a good job of measuring anything, including IQ (whatever that is). But they are used as a proxy for IQ, and IQ does have a correlation with success in role for many jobs.

    As for EJ: he joined a long chorus of folks criticizing both the IQ testing and the general idea that it measures what we would call “intelligence” on the job. The test falls apart across cultures, has been renormed up at least twice — so you could be “low-intelligence” vs. “normal” just by taking the test a month apart. There are many who suggest that IQ measures modernity, and there seems to be a great deal to justify that. Jaques own ideas about intelligence unfortunately come from management accountability hierachies. His answer to the failure of his ideas to work in non-hierarchical workplaces, like universities and law partnerships, was to more or less write them off. Although others took the ideas with some success to the NHS after the initial issues (notably Rowbottom, Kinston and Stamp), he didn’t seem to develop the issue. Kinston’s ideas on worklevels will soon get released at and will be worth reading.

    There are the issues of IQ declining with age, its inability to predict wise decision making, the various IQ scales, IQ test performance being able to be increased through coaching and training, etc. IQ is really a difficult issue.

    Yet there is still this correlation between serious IQ tests, job success and even earning (in aggregate samples). So companies try to measure it and if you want to have a job, you had better figure out what type of score they want and give it to them.

    On Worklevels: I’ve always guessed that there is a loose correlation between IQ and current capacity. I’d also guess that in a real Level 5 role, the role-holder who is performing adequately would probably have a higher IQ than the role-holder who is performing adequately and is happy with the work at Level 1. That said, there is a multitude of Level 1 workers with very high IQs and many higher level workers with not better than average IQs, and even low IQs, as IQ probably measures modernity, which is a good thing to have for success in the modern world but not a requirement for a high level role.

    Just to confuse everything.

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