Two Philosophies About “The Room”

For whatever reason, our metaphor for interaction in business life is “The Room.”

“Working the room.”  “Every eye in the room was on him.”  “She had the room eating out of her hand.”

I just finished teaching a group of business-school students, and a good chunk of their grade was their participation in class and on their teams.

I found myself distinguishing two philosophies about participation, about “the room”, and I found myself appreciating one philosophy much more than the other.

Philosophy #1: “Be the smartest person in the room.”  Very understandable that kids would learn this in school, their first “room”.  In the schoolroom, the smartest kid gets the strokes.

But I got introduced to Philosophy #2 some years ago, and it makes more sense for most situations, for most grown-ups, for most rooms that are not set pieces like classrooms: “Be the one who helps the room move forward.”

I was working at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and doing my first presentations to big audiences, also my first consulting gigs.  A colleague approached me after one session we had worked on together and said, “You know, Dan, being the smartest person in the room isn’t always the right strategy.”

“Huh?  What?”

“Your strategy is to be the smartest guy in the room.  And you do it really well.  But it’s not always the right thing.”

“What’s a better strategy?”

“Everyone in that room is there trying to do something, solve some problem, move something forward, that’s why they’re in the room.  I try to help move the room forward.”

“What does that mean?”

“Find out what people are trying to do, and help them figure out how to do it.”

I kept thinking about this, and thinking about it.  My colleague was so right.

So fast-forward to these kids.  They were supposed to fill out online forms after each class discussing what they had contributed to class that evening.

And almost every one of them put in stuff where they had said something smart, where they had said something that could have made them the smartest person in the room.

A couple of students got it, though: they talked about what they had said or done that helped the class move forward, or helped their team move forward.

They were the ones who got my votes for best class participation.  Like they say here, “If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

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