The Olympics and MI Theory

A few weeks ago I referred to the Good Work Project and the work of Harvard professor Howard Gardner. The work for which Gardner is most known – the Theory of Multiple Intelligences – is always worth taking a look at, and seems particularly relevant during the Olympics. The Olympics provides a dazzling display of athletes using a mixture of natural talent and extreme training and hard work. They use their physical bodies, their mindset, their awareness of themselves and others, their spatial skills, their logical problem-solving, and in some cases even musical skills (when a gymnast is performing an interpretive display to backing music).

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (or MI Theory) was introduced to the world by Gardner in his 1983 book Frames of Mind, and caused a revolution in how institutions look at the idea of “intelligence.” Challenging the traditional notion that intelligence is a single capacity held by everyone to greater or lesser extents, his work proposed that intelligence could be categorized into several different areas. Standardized tests like the US standards SAT, ACT, GRE and others primarily focus on mathematical and linguistic intelligence, but Gardner’s studies initially suggested seven distinct areas of intelligence, later refined to add an eighth:

  • Logical-Mathematical – problem-solving using pragmatic steps and mathematical skills;
  • Linguistic – writing and speaking skills;
  • Interpersonal – awareness of other people’s skills, needs, and emotions;
  • Intrapersonal – self-awareness of one’s own skills, needs, and emotions;
  • Spatial – ability to see visual space and accurately gauge how things ‘fit’;
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic – ability to harness one’s own physical skills accurately;
  • Musical – understanding of rhythm, ability to interpret and/or play music/sing;
  • Naturalist – ability to see patterns and make categorizations, in nature or otherwise.

Additional studies over recent years have suggested a possible ninth category of intelligence: Existential (indicating interest and ability to connect with a greater world than one’s own lived experiences); and Gardner has also proposed others: Moral (indicating understanding of how actions connect with the concept of ‘good’), and Teaching-Pedagogical (the ability to successfully support others in growing in skills). While the specifics of a person’s individual intelligence and skills can be analyzed from a number of different angles, with no framework being the whole-and-total truth, MI Theory can provide a useful way to consider both ourselves and those around us.

Of course, a high-functioning team includes a variety of strengths – ideally across the spectrum of multiple intelligences. But it doesn’t just include them – it embraces them, nurtures them, and welcomes their contributions. So how can this framework be useful for you with your team this week?

This Week’s Tip:

  1. Consider the MI Theory areas of intelligence – which ones feel like strengths to you? Consider reframing “how intelligent am I?” to “how am I intelligent?”  Self-assessment quizzes are available online but there is no single authoritative one – if you choose to take one, take a few from different sources. Try leaning into some of your areas of strength this week.
  2. Think about your colleagues and team members using the MI framework. In which areas do they show strength? In which areas have you assumed strength or weakness, but you can see that assumption might be faulty?
  3. Plan inclusively during meetings, work sessions, and projects. Consider how to bring out the strengths you see in others. How can you harness each person’s unique diversity to build diverse unity?
  4. Ask what training you can offer someone who displays strength in a particular area? And/or ask what support you can offer to increase skills in areas of challenge?
  5. Look for the strengths and intelligences displayed by others. Whether these are friends, family members, Olympians… Keep your eyes open to see things you may not have noticed before.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes – we’d love to hear from you. If you have thoughts or questions, contact us or post in our Facebook group.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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