There’s a know-it-all at every job — here’s how to deal

May 30, 2023 /

Lucia dreaded interacting with her colleague Ray. Meetings that were scheduled for an hour would last two; once Ray started talking, he wouldn’t stop. “There’s no doubt he was a smart man,” Lucia says, “but he did little more than talk about everything he knew. He delegated almost all of his work to others.”

Most of us have dealt with a Ray, the know-it-all who is convinced they’re the smartest person in the room, hogs airtime in meetings and has no qualms about interrupting others. They gleefully inform you of what’s right, even if they’re clearly wrong, lacking information or fail to understand the nuances of a situation.

Here are some of the signs of the know-it-all:
• Monopolizes conversations, refusing to be interrupted and talking over others
• Does not listen to or heed criticism or feedback
• Speaks in a condescending tone
• Explains things that others already understand
• Rarely asks questions or displays curiosity
• Steals or doesn’t share credit for group successes

One reason know-it-alls exist in so many workplaces is that many organizations reward people who act as if they have all the answers. Do employees who state their ideas with conviction tend to get more support for those ideas at your job? If people appear uncertain, are they considered weak? In many cultures, decision-making is a competitive sport, rather than a collaborative effort, so acting like you know everything is a shrewd survival technique.

So how can you make your interactions with your know-it-all coworker not just less annoying but less damaging?
First, answer these four questions before taking action.

Question 1: Are they trying to prove something?

There’s a good chance your colleague’s egotism is compensating for some deficiency or fear. Considering their underlying insecurities may give you some clues about how to deal with them. For example, some know-it-alls might be constantly talking about what they accomplished in their last role as a way to demonstrate their value. If you understand that, you might make a point of validating the contributions they’re already making, freeing them from the need to tout their past achievements.

Question 2: Is their confidence warranted?

Your know-it-all colleague might have good reason to be confident in their assertions or claims, even if their demeanor leaves something to be desired. Could it be that their delivery is abrasive, but their underlying points have merit?

Question 3: Is bias playing a role in how I’m perceiving them?

We all hold biases about who is cut out to hold positions of power. And when someone doesn’t fit our preconceptions of leadership, we tend to question whether their confidence is justified. For example, research has shown that women of color have to prove their expertise over and over. Is the person you’re labeling as a know-it-all from an underestimated group? Do they belong to a culture or demographic that you have unconscious but negative biases about?

Question 4: Is their confidence pushing your buttons?

I admit that the stronger someone feels about something, the more I feel resistant to their argument, especially if their view threatens my values in some way. Ask yourself whether your reaction to your colleague has more to do with you than it does with them. Is it possible that you feel insecure when you compare your accomplishments to theirs? Or maybe you wish that you were as confident or sure minded as they are? Is their behavior causing real issues for you or the team? Or is it just annoying? Distinguish between statements or actions that are irritating and behavior that is preventing you from getting your work done.

After you can get a sense of where they’re coming from — and what role your preferences and biases may be playing in your attitude towards them — change your working relationship by trying one of these tactics.

Tactic 1: Appreciate what they have to offer

You may need to dig deep to find it, but there is probably some genuine knowledge or capability behind the know-it-all’s overconfidence. Sure, they may exaggerate their skills and successes but find the kernel of truth. And if the ultimate goal of their pretentiousness is approval or acceptance, your empathy and appreciation may help them let up on the “Look-how-much-I-know!” routine.

Tactic 2: Prevent interruptions

Most know-it-alls have an annoying habit of constantly interrupting people. One way to deal with it is to preemptively request that people refrain from interjecting. Before you start talking, explain how much time (roughly) you’re going to need and say something like, “Please hold any comments or questions until I’m done.” If you’re not making a formal presentation but are just having a discussion where some back-and-forth is expected, you might say instead, “Interruptions break my concentration, so I’d appreciate it if you’d let me finish my thoughts before jumping in.”

Tactic 3: When interruptions do occur, tactfully address them

If your efforts to preempt interruptions fail, address them directly. But don’t just raise your voice. That sets up a power struggle and your colleague is likely to talk louder in an attempt to drown you out. Instead, confidently say, “I’m going to finish my point, and then I’d love to hear what you have to say.”

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, enlist allies. It’s often easier for someone else to confront rudeness, saying something like, “I’d love to hear what Keith was saying before we move on,” or “I don’t think Madison was finished with her point.” If the know-it-all interrupts multiple people on your team, you could agree to speak up for each other when it happens.

Tactic 4: Set norms

One norm that I’ve been using when I’m teaching a workshop or giving a talk to a group where people will be interacting with one another (especially on Zoom) is to “take space, make space.”

The idea is that if you tend to be someone who stays quiet in meetings, you should challenge yourself to voice your opinions. If you’re someone who is prone to holding the floor, try to step back and make room for others to contribute. I’ve found that sharing this idea at the beginning results in a more equitably distributed meeting. This could be one of several norms you and your team agree on. Having established guidelines will discourage interruptions and make it safe for everyone to speak up.

Tactic 5: Ask for facts and data

Another irritating habit of the know-it-all is to proclaim: “Our customers expect us to deliver new features every six months.” “Sales are dropping because we aren’t quick enough to respond to complaints.” “In a year, no one will even be talking about this election.” If you’re sitting there wondering how they know that, it’s OK to ask for sources or data that back up their declarations.

Be respectful, not confrontational when doing this. You might say something like “I’m not sure we’re working with the same assumptions and facts. Let’s step back and take a look at the data before we proceed.”

Even if your domineering colleague doesn’t respond well to these kinds of inquiries the first few times, they may come to expect your requests for evidence and think twice before blurting out unsubstantiated claims. And asking them to explain how they know something may help them see the limits of their knowledge and encourage some humility in the future.

When you’re meeting with a know-it-all, show up with verified facts in hand. The more prepared you are to defend your perspective and to counter any misleading statements they make, the better. You’ll also be reinforcing the importance of fact-based discussions over posturing.

Tactic 6: Model humility and an open mind

Many show-offs act the way they do because it’s worked for them in the past or because implicitly or explicitly they’ve received messages that projecting confidence is what’s expected on your team, in your organization, or in the culture they’re from. You can provide a different model by displaying humility and open-mindedness. Try saying, “I don’t know” or “I don’t have that information right now; let me get back to you.”

If the know-it-all sees that you suffer no consequences for expressing uncertainty, they may be willing to do the same. You can even prompt them to be humbler by encouraging everyone to come to meetings having thought through the pros and cons of solutions or ideas they want to propose. Or you can ask questions like:
• What’s another viewpoint?
• If we tried to see this from another perspective, what might we think?
• What are the benefits and risks of this approach?

Because some know-it-alls are seeking validation, simply acknowledging their ideas can prevent grandstanding. Thank them for sharing their thoughts or highlight one or two things you appreciate about their perspective before sharing yours or diving in with questions. For instance, you might say, “That’s a useful point. I agree with the first part of what you said, and I see the second part slightly differently. Let’s talk that through.”

Working with a know-it-all is irritating at best and career-limiting at worst. But you don’t need to sit back and suffer. You can take steps to curb your colleague’s bluster or at least lessen its impact on you and others.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Getting Along: How to Get Along with Anyone (Even Difficult People) by Amy Gallo. Copyright 2022 Amy Gallo. All rights reserved.

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