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Giftedness in the Work Environment: Backgrounds and Practical Recommendations

By Noks Nauta and Sieuwke Ronner.

This article was published in Dutch in “Tijdschrift voor Bedrijfs- en Verzekeringsgeneeskunde” (Journal for Occupational Health- and Insurance Physicians), TBV 16, no. 11 (Nov. 2008): 396-399. Publisher: Bohn Stafleu Van Loghum, Houten, The Netherlands. The editor agreed with translation and publication on this website.

In November 2002, an article was published in this journal entitled ‘Gifted individuals at work’.1 Up until then, little had been published on the subject of giftedness and work, even outside the Netherlands. The article thus provoked many responses. What particularly caught people’s attention was the table presenting side by side two perceptions of problems encountered by the gifted in fitting in with their environment: one from the perspective of the gifted employee and one from that of his/her environment. From at least ten people, we heard that both employee and employer literally acknowledged ALL the points! Additionally, many occupational health physicians were able to better recognise gifted individuals by using this table, thereby enabling them to provide more effective guidance. As a source of information and as an aid to recognition, the article continues to prove its worth.

In the last six years, increasing attention has been focussed on this subject, for example, for gifted children in education. One result of this is that some parents come to discover that they too are gifted. And with the founding of various think tanks and the attention being paid to retaining special talents for industry, the subject is now more or less on the political agenda.

However, until fairly recently, many misconceptions existed concerning what giftedness actually is. Additionally, the image of gifted individuals was not always a positive one. That is why in 2006/2007 a so-called Delphi study was conducted into the characteristics of giftedness.2 In this article, we will discuss briefly the results of this study, with the emphasis on the relation between the gifted individual and the work environment.

We will then provide a number of practical tips for the occupational health- and insurance physician, based on the current state of knowledge and experiences. We will also briefly discuss the guidance offered by psychologists and other professionals. Finally, we will describe what the gifted individuals can do for themselves.

Central points:

· Occupational health- and insurance physicians can recognise gifted employees based on a number of the characteristics

· Knowledge of the interaction between a favourable or unfavourable work environment and the gifted employee is of great importance if a clear problem analysis and effective guidance is to be achieved.

GIFTEDNESS AND ITS CHARACTERISTICS In practice, various definitions of giftedness exist, a fact which has not made the communication concerning giftedness any easier. Differences in insights were often linked to the question of whether the diagnosis of ‘gifted’ referred only to the IQ (the top 2% of the scores in a valid IQ test) or whether the person being assessed was required to achieve high-level performances. In other words, is it possible for someone with no educational qualifications, and who has not produced any tangible achievements (e.g. playing the violin exceptionally well), or who does not occupy a good social position, to still be called ‘gifted’?

For this reason, in the Netherlands throughout the year 2006/2007, a national consensus trajectory was carried out regarding what a group of experts (people who are themselves gifted and who also work with the gifted, including psychologists, coaches and career coaches, occupational health physicians, and a psychiatrist), precisely consider to be ‘giftedness’. Use was made of the Delphi method, and the result of this study is an existential model from which the following picture of commonly shared characteristics can be distilled:

A gifted individual is a quick and clever thinker, who is able to deal with complex matters. An individual who is autonomous, curious and passionate. A sensitive and emotionally rich person, who is living intensely. He or she is a person who enjoys being creative.

In the above-mentioned study, attention was paid to the naming of the specific characteristics of gifted individuals who are in balance. When the gifted individual is in a situation in which he or she is not able to effectively deal with his or her characteristics, ‘skewed growth’ may occur, leaning in the direction of an exaggeration or collapse.

It is possible for gifted individuals to make a contribution to work processes through their characteristics (their talents), provided that their talents and their contributions are also seen to be positive, and provided that they do not ‘grow skewed’, through, among other things, insufficient appreciation or non-professional guidance.

According to Kooijman2 “We are talking here about an ‘ideal typical’ character. The “gifted individual’ doesn’t exist (just as “the American” or “the European” doesn’t exist), and gifted individuals also differ amongst themselves. A gifted individual will possess quite a few of the characteristics mentioned in this model, but need not possess all characteristics in equal amounts, or possess an extreme number of them,’ The model is not intended to be used as a ‘measure’ or for making diagnoses”.

The following characteristics are the most eye-catching from the list:

· highly intelligent (thinking, could be measured in a valid IQ test)1;

· autonomous (being);

· many-facetted emotional life (feeling);

· passionate and curious (wanting);

· highly sensitive (perceiving);

· creation-directed (doing);

· sparkling original, quick, intense and complex (interplay)

A more detailed description of this collection of characteristics and a diagrammatic representation can be found in chapters 4 and 5 of Kooijman et al.2

‘The value of this collection of characteristics will need to be demonstrated in practice,’ says Kooijman.2 She explains that the model is primarily intended for the gifted individuals themselves to help them develop a more balanced self-image and to identify their own potential, pitfalls and learning points. Additionally, the model can be used outside the group of gifted individuals, for example for occupational health professionals and coaches and/or career coaches. And it may be used for PR purposes to rectify the occasionally one-dimensional (and often negative) image of gifted individuals.


With their creative talents, gifted individuals can make a useful contribution to innovations within organisations. In the article ‘Gifted employees, key to innovation’, we suggest that highly gifted individuals possess many more creative possibilities than the averagely gifted person. To make use of their innovative ideas and to implement them, however, an effective interaction between gifted individuals and their work environment is essential.4

In Table 1 we show why gifted individuals are able to contribute effectively to innovation.

Favourable environmental factors that are required for making use of these contributions are listed in Table 2. The favourable characteristics listed in table 2 correspond strongly with the ‘task culture’ and ‘person culture’, while the unfavourable characteristics correspond with the ‘role culture’ or ‘power culture’ from Harrison’s typologies of organisational culture.5


Occupational health- and insurance physicians (see endnote ii about the situation in the Netherlands) appear on the scene only when an imbalance has resulted in sickness symptoms becoming evident. We often see stress arise as an expression of problems experienced by the gifted individual in adjusting to his or her work environment. That may have something to do with the nature of the work: the work might be too routine, or offer too little of a challenge.

In that case, the gifted employee will typically be located in a situation where he or she will be unable to make optimal use of his or her talents. But a contributory factor may also be the relations at work. Some managers might feel threatened, or colleagues might consider the gifted individual to be a ‘know-it-all’. Problems encountered in fitting in with the environment can be identified if a physician realises that in many work situations there is a huge difference between the IQ of the gifted individual and that of the other employees. Gifted individuals are able to think more quickly, can analyse well, understand complex situations, and therefore they will appear at ‘the frontline’ relatively quickly. Additionally, their areas of interests can diverge strongly from others, as can their type of humour. At the same time, it is useful to realise that many gifted individuals have felt that they were ‘different’ from a young age and therefore feel isolated more quickly than the average classmate or colleague. Some will also have been bullied due to their being ‘different’.

If being gifted plays a role in the occurrence of health complaints and incapacity to work, it is important that this is acknowledged at an early stage. An employee with innovative ideas may have fallen into the pitfall of nagging or ‘knowing it all’ and as a result may have come into conflict with colleagues or superiors. By acknowledging this mechanism, in which a talent has become a pitfall, the occupational physician can contribute to raising awareness in both the gifted individual and his/her superior. A few clarifying or coaching talks can often work wonders, in our experience! On the internet you can find various articles and different portals in this area, such as (in Dutch) and

Some websites where you can find information on gifted adults in English:

When the employee suffers from serious complaints or if the problematic situation is of a persistent nature, a referral to a psychologist or a psychotherapist may be useful. Gifted individuals feel more comfortable with practitioners that are familiar with giftedness as well as having an affinity with it.


We will now summarize a number of issues that are of importance for the practice of occupational- and insurance physicians.

How can giftedness be recognised?

If an employee arrives at your consulting room how do you recognise the above-mentioned characteristics of giftedness? We will specify a few here, including in brackets the corresponding term from the Delphi study:2

· wide interest in all kinds of fields (curious and passionate);

· sensitive for, for example, noise at work (highly sensitive);

· can speak passionately about a subject that interests him or her, starts speaking more quickly, the eyes light up, makes agitated gestures (passionate);

· quick analyses of the work situation: ‘that’s how it works’ (highly intelligent);

· focused primarily on the content of the work (highly intelligent);

· wants to work in his/her own way (autonomous);

· wants to see a lot of variety in the work (creation-directed);

· produces unorthodox solutions that are not generally accepted (sparkling original).

Focus points for the problem analysis

· Gifted individuals suffer relatively often from stress and burn-out. Factors that can be of influence here are the nature of the work (sufficient challenge), the degree of autonomy and the defining of borders. Gifted employees are especially passionate and have the tendency to insufficiently specify their own limits.

· Bullying, or other forms of aggression: because a gifted individual does not fit the requirements of the ‘average’ employee. As a result, fear/anxiety disorders may arise.

· Depressive feelings often start at an early age. Gifted individuals can therefore more easily feel lonely and isolated.

· Fear of failure as a result of setting the bar high and the tendency to perfectionism.

· The gifted individual can come across as having ADHD. The combination of giftedness and ADHD is not uncommon.

· Gifted individuals have a high sensitivity for odours and sounds. They more quickly experience certain circumstances as being a hindrance.


The theme of ‘gifted adults in the work situation’ has hardly been an issue for the professional group of psychologists up till now. Although the number of preconceptions about giftedness is on the decrease, it would appear that many psychologists are still insufficiently aware of the characteristics, talents and pitfalls of gifted individuals, and the interaction between these characteristics and the work situation. Additionally, the focus remains strongly on the individual, with little involvement on the part of the employer. The content of the work and the mutual relations can however be just as obstructive for the functioning of the gifted employee. This demands more deliberation between the various professionals themselves, the employer and the gifted employee. We therefore recommend setting up the plan of approach in joint discussion with the employer, employee and occupational health physician (in collaboration with other relevant professionals). Agreements concerning the guidance and the expected results of a re-integration trajectory are then specified and registered. These are evaluated at the end of the guidance period.


To achieve an effective collaboration between work environment and the gifted employee, the gifted individual must obviously take action himself/herself. In the book Unguided Missiles on Course, Working and Living with Giftedness, the authors provide a number of tips based on their experiences in guiding gifted individuals in their work.6 The book describes eleven examples of gifted adults in search of their own path, after having been blown off course in their work and/or their private lives. The most important focus point is to keep the balance of the many talents of being gifted and to make these talents visible in connection with the work environment. To achieve this, it is important that gifted employees are aware of:

· their talents and the effects of these talents on the environment;

· their motivations and passions;

· their specific pitfalls, which are strongly related to being gifted;

· other ways of dealing with their talents and passion;

· other ways of communication to demonstrate their talents to their environment;

· a work environment in which their talents are given the place they deserve. For gifted individuals, a workspace offering the freedom to ‘explore’ and fostering creativity is favourable for them to be able to display their talents.

If there is no positive interaction between the gifted employee and the work environment, a moment can arise when the balance between talents and pitfalls is disturbed. Occasionally, the gifted employee succeeds in re-establishing the connection with himself/herself and the work environment all on their own, and sometimes professional help is required.


Although in some work environments more attention is now being paid to gifted employees, there is still not much known about specific characteristics of giftedness and its significance for the work situation. Gifted individuals can be exceptionally useful for companies and organisations, provided that their talents are acknowledged and made use of. If the gifted employee is in danger of missing the boat, we make a plea for focussing attention particularly on the specific talents of the gifted individual and how this can be effectively made use of in the work situation. We observe that there is a tendency for the problem to be individualised or medicalised. The interaction between the organisation and the gifted employee deserves more attention, in our opinion.


1. Nauta N, Corten F. Hoogbegaafden aan het werk. (Gifted adults in work.) Tijdschr Bedrijfs Verzekeringsgeneeskd (Journal for Occupational Health- and Insurance Physicians) 2002; 10(11): 332-335. This article is available in both Dutch and Polish versions from the first author.

2. Kooijman-van Thiel MBGM (red). Hoogbegaafd. Dat zie je zó! Over zelfbeeld en imago van hoogbegaafden. (Highly Gifted. Obvious? On Identity and Image of Gifted Persons) Ede: OYA Productions, 2008, ISBN 978 90 9023526 4.

3. Mary-Elaine Jacobsen. The gifted adult. Ballantine Books, 2000, ISBN 0 345 43492 7.

4. Corten FGP, Nauta AP, Ronner S. The highly intelligent and innovation. Key to innovation? Academic paper for HRD conference Amsterdam, October 2006. See websites, www.noks and

5. Geffen G van. Mensalen and the organisation culture types of Harrison. Article in Mensaberichten 2000.

6. Noks Nauta and Sieuwke Ronner. Unguided missiles on course. Working and living with giftedness. Harcourt Book Publishers, June 2007. ISBN 978 90 26517990.

NOTES: The Delphi technique is an efficient way to obtain consensus. We performed a written version in 5 rounds. Statements are made and open questions are asked. After each round the results are presented to the participants and new formulations are given and new questions are asked.

In the Netherlands all employers need to contract an occupational health physician. These are medical doctors with an extra four year postgraduate training. They advise employees and employers on matters regarding work and health. They give preventive advise and have consulting hours for employees who are on sick leave. Because at least a third of the people on sick leave have mental complaints, occupational health physicians often deal with employees who have stress related disorders and/ or depressive disorders. Among these they see gifted adults and in order to give an adequate advice to employee and employer we think it is important that they recognize them.

Most of the insurance physicians in the Netherlands work in the field of social security. When sick leave is longer than 2 years, insurance physicians give a medical opinion when someone claims to be unable to work for medical reasons. We know some gifted persons who, because of mental problems, sometimes combines with a psychiatric disease, have a disability pension.

Some gifted people do not show a high score on IQ tests for instance because of fear of failure, lack of motivation or dyslexia.



Ms Noks Nauta is an occupational health physician and a psychologist. She works as a freelance trainer and teacher, amongst others, in the field of the gifted. Correspondence Address:

Ms Sieuwke Ronner is a clinical psychologist and organisational expert. She supervises change trajectories in companies, gives training courses and coaches gifted individuals.

Translator: Translation from Dutch into English by Kumar Jamdagni (Language Matters, Zwolle)

Translation date 9 October 2009; revision for SENG website 24 March 2010

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