Co authored by Annie Meachem
How to handle the ‘Know-it All’ This is the type of person who is convinced he or she knows it all, that all his co-workers are fools and idiots, and that his boss only gained his position through some lucky twist of fate, or some other unfair means of taking what the Know-it All is sure should be his or her rightful position. From this lofty position, the Know-it All thinks it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt meetings when he wants to speak. He does his best to outsmart his boss and to show him up as inadequate whenever possible. He thinks nothing of embarrassing his colleagues by making them feel small.
So how can you handle the Know-it All type successfully so that he cooperates with you and your goal is achieved? Firstly, assess whether his view of himself as ‘special’ compared to you and his peers has any basis in reality. If for instance he was a child prodigy in applied mathematics, he may well be genuinely dismissive of those around him in an office accounts department and frustrated by the lack of opportunities to use his talents fully. There are many examples of extremely high achievers in the business and academic world whose prodigious talents were coupled with very little emotional intelligence. The best way to handle the genuine Know-it All would be to harness his talents in a rarefied environment, keeping him distant from the ‘ordinary’ people. This would mean moving him out of the general accounts department into a specialist division, for example.
However, it may well be that the Know-it All’s belief in his superiority is an example of an over-inflated ego at work that does not match the reality of his skills and talents. He’s a false Know-it All, wearing a mask of confidence and arrogance to hide, even from himself, a deep hole of insecurity within. As with all personality traits, all of us can be affected by insecurity to a greater or lesser degree; it only becomes a problem when the degree to which it impacts our behaviour falls towards the outer, more extreme, edges of the scale. The problem for the false Know-it All is that he is not able to see the reality of the situations he finds himself in. He is not able to recognise that everyone in the team is equally valuable in their different ways, as they all contribute something to the whole endeavour. He doesn’t see that the fact he is the junior, his boss the senior, reflects a difference in relative experience within the organisation, even if not in qualifications.
Your purpose in handling the false Know-it All is not to heal his insecurities, but to know how to handle him effectively so that your goals are achieved.
The best tactic with a false Know-it All is to set very clear boundaries around acceptable behaviour, with clear consequences of crossing those boundaries. You have to be prepared to enforce those consequences or he will walk straight over you and your boundaries.
You could tell him that he is valuable to you as a member of your team, and that his contribution makes a difference that you recognise and appreciate. Be specific, rather than general: “The report you prepared last week was detailed and accurate, and flagged up various areas to investigate further. That was very helpful, thanks.” Specific appreciation has more impact than generalised praise: “You’re a great report writer” builds the ego without grounding it in reality.
At the same time
You need to tell him that you also value other team members and their contributions, and you need to hear what they are saying in meetings, and you can’t do that if he is talking over them. Tell him that he also looks like a fool when he interferes and interrupts, and you value him too much to want him to look like a fool. Tell him that you value what he has to say, and so you will ensure that you ask him for his opinion during meetings, but that he has to wait his turn to be asked.
You could run meetings in a more structured way by asking attendees to write down their opinions on the subject in discussion, and you’ll ask for them in turn. Tell him that your opinion of him goes down when you hear that he has been making other team members feel small, and you don’t want to think less of him, as he is a valuable team member to you.
Tell him clearly
What the consequences will be for him if he doesn’t do as you ask and change his behaviour with this and the other areas you have highlighted to him. Should you apply this approach with the Know-it All and he takes no notice, you will need to enforce the consequences you agreed upon. You will need to stand your ground, and hold firm to your authority. You may also need to apply the shampoo principle with the false Know-it All: Rinse and repeat.