Gifted adults (people with a very high intelligence; 2% of
the population) sometimes are not able to function adequately
at work. Their high intelligence can cause them to dysfunction
when adapting to the work situation, sometimes leading to
absenteeism and disability. Hardly any scientific research
on this topic has been performed. This article describes some
characteristics of gifted people. The problems at work are
explained using examples from the work floor.
Based on certain characteristics and signals, occupational
health physicians and insurance doctors are able to recognize
giftedness and to bring the subject out into the open. The
solution can lie in a change in the job requirements or working
conditions; medical or psychotherapeutic treatment is then
rendered unnecessary. When their motivation is restored, people
with very high intelligence are capable of high-quality work
and of solving complex problems. Thus, a gifted employee who
is not functioning as required becomes a valued worker providing
a unique contribution at work.
It is increasingly being realized that gifted individuals
have the capacity to help solve complex problems 1 . Many
are functioning at a high level. But just like a number of
gifted schoolchildren, some gifted employees do not function
adequately and are unhappy as a result 2 . Some become ill
and even permanently occupationally disabled. What are the
characteristics of the problems of the gifted at work. And
what can occupational health physicians and insurance doctors
do with this information?
To illustrate our point, we present two case studies.
- Case study 1
Alice Wismeijer is a 38-year-old woman. She works as a researcher
for a government service and has gained many qualifications
through self-study in the evenings. She functions well in
her work. However, a colleague has been bullying her for
years. She tries to ignore this and hardly ever reports
sick for work. One day, it all becomes too much for her.
The occupational health physician diagnoses a burn-out.
She becomes long-term sick. She goes in search of therapy,
in the course of which much suffering during her youth is
revealed. After a year, an occupational disability examination
assesses that she is able to do work of a simple nature
for 20 hours a week. Alice has the impression that she is
very intelligent and knows that she will not be able to
perform simple work for a lengthy period of time. However,
she does not dare to voice her belief about this. During
the surgery hours of the occupational health physician she
bursts into terrible bouts of crying and the occupational
health physician doesn't know how to help her. The reintegration
- Case study 2
Joost Bakker is a 42-year-old automation expert. He suffers
from neck problems, as a result of which he regularly stays
off work. The occupational health physician has a lengthy
interview with him. Joost is rather anxious and very preoccupied
with his health. Additionally, he appears to be quite lonely,
has little contact with his colleagues. He functions adequately,
his manager is happy with him. The occupational health physician
suggests that Joost be examined by a psychologist specialized
in work-related problems at the working conditions service.
After completing a detailed anamnesis, the psychologist
performs a number of tests. The results show that Joost
scores very high in analytical thinking, amongst other areas.
Joost tells the psychologist that he had been tested at
high school but that his parents had refused to tell him
the results of the tests.
The tests and interview do not reveal any severe problems.
The psychologist advises Joost to request information from
Mensa*, a worldwide association for very intelligent people.
He overcomes his initial resistance to the idea and follows
the advice. Based on the results of the tests he had already
undergone, he is accepted as a member. He acknowledges a
lot of what is contained in the documentation that he receives.
Within the association, he establishes several valuable
contacts. A year later, the occupational health physician
observes that Joost appears to be relaxed. He still suffers
from neck problems, but he hardly ever reports sick. He
has started studying again and is happy with the advice
the psychologist gave him.
A generally accepted definition of “gifted”
does not exist 3 . According to the definition used by
Mensa, this means having an IQ that lies in the uppermost
2%, scored on an approved IQ test. Depending on the kind
of test, this is an IQ ranging between 140 and 150.
There are many kinds of intelligences. Gardner distinguishes
eight: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial,
musical, bodily, naturalistic, emotional and intrapersonal
4 . The two last-named intelligences are sometimes referred
to by others as emotional intelligence. The most attention
in the literature and in tests is paid to the first three
The usual intelligence tests do not seem to predict work
performance very accurately 5 . How effectively someone
will be able to solve problems in the real world is determined
not only by intelligence, but also by the knowledge and
skills that that individual has acquired 3 . The environment
(parents, school, etc) also plays a role in an individual's
development 6 .
Er is geen algemeen geaccepteerde definitie van ‘hoogbegaafdheid’
3. Volgens de definitie van de vereniging Mensa * betekent het
een IQ dat ligt in de bovenste 2 %, gescoord op een erkende
IQ-test. Afhankelijk van de soort test is dat een IQ van 140
Er zijn vele soorten van intelligentie. Gardner beschrijft er
acht: linguïstisch, logisch-mathematisch, ruimtelijk-visueel,
muzikaal, lichamelijk, naturalistisch, emotioneel en intrapersoonlijk
4. De laatste twee vormen noemen anderen emotionele intelligentie.
De meeste aandacht in de literatuur en in testen gaat uit naar
de eerste drie.
Voor werkprestaties blijken de gebruikelijke intelligentietests
niet voorspellend 5. Hoe effectief iemand in de toekomst problemen
in de realiteit kan gaan oplossen wordt niet alleen bepaald
door intelligentie, maar ook door kennis en vaardigheden die
iemand heeft verworven 3. Ook de omgeving (ouders, school etc)
speelt een rol in de ontwikkeling 6.
Charactaristics of the gifted
Although of course all gifted individuals are unique, they
do share certain characteristics. Some of these are present
naturally, others have come into existence gradually through
interaction with the environment. Cause and effect can therefore
not always be distinguished from each other.
- Speed of thinking. Gifted
individuals think more quickly than others. They make many
mental switches, associate rapidly and give the impression
that they jump from one subject to the next.
- High sensitivity. A higher
development potential often is accompanied by high sensitivity
7 . This high sensitivity manifests itself in different
areas: psychomotoric, sensorial, intellectual, imaginative,
emotional, 7 and can resemble ADHD.
Over-stimulation of the senses manifests itself auditively
(machines, radios, smacking lips), visually (light sources)
or sense of touch (certain fabrics, labels in clothing,
or touching). Currently, there is a high level of interest
being shown in high sensitivity in general 8 .
- Introversion. The internal
world of the gifted is particularly well-developed. They
are quickly and easily hurt, which is why they tend to keep
people at a distance. Some avoid parties and suchlike since
the topics of conversation do not interest them. This can
resemble autism 9 . Introversion can also arise through
having the feeling of being rejected. People with high IQs
would seem to have difficulty meeting like-minded people,
which can quickly lead them to become isolated 10 .
- Emotional development. Many
gifted individuals feel emotions strongly. But because cognitive
thinking dominates and provides safety, emotional development
remains relatively underdeveloped. They have difficulty
in linking feelings and reason. This can be reinforced when
an individual has felt lonely from a young age. For example,
when the environment does not acknowledge or recognize the
child as being gifted. Fortunately, the emotional development
of many gifted individuals has progressed well.
- Creativity. The thought
processes of the gifted differ from those of average intelligence:
they are more global in nature and with a strong capacity
for imagination. Averagely intelligent people can often
not follow their train of thought. They can identify patterns
quickly, so that they can, for example, predict trends successfully.
They can often draw conclusions intuitively 11 . This creativity
is often frustrated by the regular education system.
- Independence. The forming
of judgments and opinions often takes place autonomously.
They are non-conformist and therefore display what teachers
easily label as ‘inappropriate behavior' 11 . This
independence accompanies the creativity mentioned above.
They often have an aversion to non-democratic authority
- Perfectionism. Perfectionism
is often accompanied by having too high expectations of
others, but also with hame, guilt feelings and feelings
of inferiority through not being able to meet their own
high expectations 9,13 . This leads to tension and occasionally
- Learning style. The learning
style of the gifted is often exploratory. They have an extreme
dislike of learning lists, they find it uninteresting and
become bored 12 . Often, they do not understand the teacher's
questions or the questions in the text books, because they
are looking for things that aren't there. This leads to
frustration. Some gifted adults lack basic knowledge but
have a lot of knowledge in areas that they are interested
in. They often fail to develop learning strategies because
they never learn from their failures 9 .
- Fear of failure and under-performing.
If their intelligence is not stimulated, children
often develop bad working habits 14 . They sometimes think
that they are stupid, become afraid of failure and start
under-performing 9 . Their motivation to learn decreases.
This can result later in frustrations and disappointments
in their career.
The gifted and problems at work.
Little research has been done concerning how being gifted
manifests itself in the arena of work and how the gifted individual
experiences this. One of the authors (FC) worked for a lengthy
period as P&O advisor in an environment where many gifted
employees worked. He discovered a surprising parallel between
the gifted and artists. Both often find it difficult to develop
their own talents unless certain strange conditions are met.
Inspiration and motivation would appear to be more significant
factors than knowledge and ability 15 .
In addition, we have collected career histories of Mensa
members, amongst others, and from our own practice. Based
on all this, we present in table 1 a number of characteristic
statements, from the perspective of both the employee and
the environment. If three or more of these characteristics
are present, the possibility should be considered that being
gifted is a reason for an employee experiencing adaptation
problems at work.
Characteristic statements made by gifted employees and people
in their working environment concerning adaptation problems
|What the working
||What the employee
| 1 Many conflicts
with management and authorities
||I have a great sense
|2 Cannot listen
to what others say
||My ideas are not
understood, but I'm usually right
|3 Difficult to place
motives. What's behind it all?
|| Apparently I'm
a threat to my colleagues
|4 Bad timekeeping,
for example in meetings
||I'm being held back
all the time, it all goes so slowly
|5 Strongly fluctuating
performance, without any clear cause
|| I have no idea
what I want, I find almost everything interesting
|6 Not clear where the employee's
optimal work position is; concerns him/herself with all
kinds of things
||I get too little appreciation,
people don't see what I'm capable of
|7 Lack of perseverance and discipline
|| I'm easily distracted
|8 Is difficult to approach,
|| I dislike social talk
| 9 Makes all kinds of demands
concerning work environment factors
||I can't understand how other
people can work in that noise
The differences between the left- and right-hand columns highlight
the adaptation and communication problems. Gifted individuals
who dysfunction are often not aware of their own intelligence,
which results in them interpreting the lack of knowledge of
others as unwillingness 16 . They become irritated and often
start going too fast. Additionally, there is a tendency to
focus on the content, rather than on issues such as enthusiasm
and motivation 2 . On the other hand, they try sometimes to
adapt too much, which can result in a general dissatisfaction,
and the job profiling is not clear enough to allow them to
take on suitable tasks.
Advisory functions, creative professions and specialist functions
in, for example, the legal, medical, technological, educational
science, PR or journalism sectors are often well-suited, just
as setting up an own business 17 . The manager or supervisor
should focus on goals and results rather than the method to
be followed (the so-called compass approach) 1 . Given this
approach, the gifted individual can provide a unique contribution
to, for example, strategy, problem-solving, trend watching
and product development.
Recognizing one's own giftedness often is an important step
toward improving one's functioning. Based on his experiences
with coaching and career counseling, one of the authors (FC)
distinguishes here five, often unconscious, strategies, see
table 2 18 . Upon being published, this list provoked twenty
responses from individuals belonging to the target group,
all stating that they recognized much of what was in the list.
Development often takes place from one strategy to the other.
Occasionally, in different environments, different strategies
are applied alongside each other.
Strategies of the gifted with respect to life and career.
||Place of giftedness
in life and career
|| Keeps a low profile,
which results in personal development being restricted.
Often not aware of high intelligence: considers him/herself
rather stupid. Functions in simple jobs. Upon becoming
aware of their giftedness, can develop to one of the other
|| Has established
a connection with other people at his/her own level at
an early stage, which acts as a stimulus. Has not had
any major adaptation problems and has gone through a normal
personal development. Works, for example, in a gifted
environment (Whiz kids? Specialized researcher?), as advisor
with a unique task within a unique company, or starts
up a business.
|| Has discovered
through experience that you can't achieve anything with
intelligence alone. Has actively raised his/her social
skills to a high level. Is therefore able to solve many
adaptation problems. Often functions well in jobs that
are intrinsically multidisciplinary in character.
||Has a checkered
career history. From conflict to conflict and occasionally
even from dismissal to dismissal. Tries to survive by
placing the emphasis on the quality of the work. Can progress
to ‘Social' or may find him/herself in ‘Isolation'.
|| Operates almost
exclusively in a state of isolation. Runs the risk of
losing contact with society.
Currently, several psychologists, coaches and career counselors
have specialized in gifted adults. They are able to point
out specific characteristics and indicate points of application
for developments. And they will be less inclined to make an
incorrect pathological judgment. Furthermore, they understand
that, despite the fact that the gifted are able to think well
and very quickly, this does not apply to the control over
their own development or their own career.
Psychologist Hans de Vries 19 gives some practical tips in
his book with regard to coming into better contact with everyday
life and thereby with society. One such tip is ‘Don't
do it' as the theme for avoiding becoming involved too quickly
and with too many things. Corten emphasizes the importance
of self-management with regard to one's career 5 : the gifted
show, by nature, a tendency to reason rationally based on
what they are able to do, what needs to be done, and which
specific circumstances this demands. And, subsequently, to
be surprised or disappointed when they discover that this
does not automatically lead to them connecting well with their
work environment. Contact with their own feelings, with that
which they really want and whereby they become motivated,
appears often to be a better basis for contact with colleagues
and profiling in the work environment than real qualities.
What can occupational health physicians and insurance doctors
do with this knowledge? If they recognize or suspect the patterns
described in a client, they can first of all discuss this
with their client. Preferably with some measure of discretion,
considering the fact that being gifted does not always provoke
positive associations in the Netherlands. Sometimes the client
will know already what he or she needs to do, in which case
some light supervision will be adequate.
If necessary, they can request a psychological test (with
special attention for the intelligence aspect) or specifically
refer the client to a care provider with experience in this
area. As so often is the case, intervention at an early stage
can prevent much suffering, and much can be achieved with
relatively simple resources. Particularly if the employee
learns to develop and profile him/herself more according to
motivation and interests, many problems can be resolved. The
result for employer and society can be highly valued and motivated
The most important sources for this article, apart from the
literature mentioned, have been experiences with clients.
Experiences and insights gained within Mensa Nederland and,
of course, our own life experiences. We hope that researchers
are interested in following up this line of research. This
in order to make more optimal use of the talents of the gifted.
The insights gained, however, will also benefit others: methods
for, for example, self-study, that work well for the gifted
have proven to be just as enriching and fascinating for others.
We would be very interested in hearing your reactions to
this subject based on your own professional experience.
Ms A.P. Nauta is MD (occupational health) and psychologist
(specialized in the fields of work-related development), PhD.
She is a scientific research worker and freelance advisor.
F.G.P. Corten studied biology (MSci) and philosophy (BA).
He founded the careers advice bureau ‘Werk en Waarde'
in 2001. He specializes in gifted adults. www.werkenwaarde.nl
* See www.Mensa.nl
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Translation (from Dutch)
Language Matters, Zwolle, The Netherlands