How to handle an office know-it-all

How to handle an office know-it-all

15 December 2017

Office “know-it-alls” may be new and insecure and be trying to establish their position in the group. Or worse, they may be your superiors who believe they really do know it all.

Either way, they can be hard to deal with.

But here’s how to work with a know-it-all, no matter where they are in the company hierarchy.

1. If you manage or mentor a know-it-all

In this situation, you have an obligation to give the person feedback. How?

Let them know that their attitude is having a negative effect on their career. Be sure to keep your feedback specific to something you have observed.

2. If the know-it-all is a colleague

First, consider your relationship: If you are friendly and comfortable with each other, it may make sense to have the conversation.

Ease into it by asking permission: “Can I talk to you about something?”

Then talk about your direct observations, putting an emphasis on your colleague’s expertise and the consequences of flaunting it.

For example, you might say: “We all know you are an expert in this area. But when you gave the answer right away, Nancy and George immediately went quiet. They didn’t get a chance to think things through or give their own answers. Did you notice that?”

It’s best not to try this approach with a colleague you don’t know well or don’t have a good relationship with. It could easily be seen as acting like a know-it-all yourself.

Wait until you have established a relationship of trust, or try some of the techniques for working with a know-it-all boss below.

3. If the know-it-all is your boss

Tread carefully. Nevertheless, here are a few broad rules to keep in mind if you find yourself in this worst-case scenario:

Rule #1: If the issue doesn’t matter, just leave it alone. Letting know-it-alls go on and on may be frustrating and annoying, but aim to tackle the issues you must.

Rule #2: If the know-it-all is wrong, and it’s important to persuade them to consider another opinion, aim to drive a small wedge between them and their beliefs.

You might start by using two types of questions: “Have you ever…?” and “What if…?”

  • You could ask: “Have you ever decided to [insert other possible course of action]? What did you do?”
  • These questions may prompt your boss to recall that another approach may repeat his past success.
  • Asking “What if” may also get know-it-alls to see things differently.

For example: “What if we [insert other possible course of action]? Do you think we could get a better result?”

Another good approach is to ask for time to consider the matter more fully.

  • You might say: “That sounds like a good decision, but let me confirm that. Let’s meet next week, and in the meantime, I’ll collect some data on how our people view the issue.”

Another alternative is to highlight any risks.

  • You might say: “There are some real risks. We want to be sure our [insert potential problems that might arise]. We might be liable. How about I check with our attorneys and risk management first?”

Rule #3: If you are successful at convincing a know-it-all boss, make sure you give him or her credit for adjusting their approach.

Above all, whether the know-it-all is your direct report, colleague, or boss, NEVER, NEVER compete with them.

Competing won’t change a know-it-all’s behaviour, and you’ll just end up looking like a know-it-all yourself.

On the other hand, a little humility and fellow feeling can work wonders.

[This is an edited version of an article published in the Harvard Business Review.]

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