How we know it all…

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” — Mark Twain


Is it not sad, when long-serving and experienced members of a team seem to just “know-it-all” (KIAs)?  Any new ideas, especially from new-comers to the team, are met with scepticism and sometimes downright disgust.  I have, during my working life (and having been on the receiving end of this myself), even seen these KIAs smurking at the new-comer, so to say:  you really know nothing, do you?The killer-phrase is often:  “We have tried that before and it didn’t work…”

The Mr and Mrs KIA are so absorbed in their own world, that they often miss the opportunity for a new insight, a new idea, an improvement, a different way of doing things, etc.

These people often fall back on their “years-of-service/years-of-experience with the company/industry/institution”.  And they are keen to tell this to anybody that wants to hear (or not).

According to the website “psychology today“, people that show this know-it-all behaviour do so possibly because of the following reasons:

  • An underlying insecurity:  People like these often feel that they are “not enough – not good, smart, pretty, thin, classy, articulate, artistic, etc. enough.”  People often feel that they are fake and were going to be found out.  They therefore feel that they have to “know everything” to compensate for this.
  • A genuine sense of superiority and grandiosity:  There are many people who genuinely believe that they know more about everything than anyone else can possibly do. They simply are not interested in what others might have to tell them, because they believe that they already have the information.
  • A combination of the two: Some grandiose individuals suffer from an underlying fear of being found out to be fakes. Some supremely insecure people actually secretly believe that they are better than anyone else.
  • Difficulty with intimacy: There are a couple of different forms of this difficulty.
  • Often related to the other categories, the fear may be that if someone gets too close they will discover the secret feelings of self-doubt or of superiority. So others are always kept at a distance.
  • A person may have gotten good feelings about him or herself from being praised indiscriminately throughout his (or her) childhood. As adults they can only feel close to people who admire and praise them. This is not to suggest that I’m in agreement with the current trend to suggest we shouldn’t praise children; but it does speak to the idea that indiscriminate, constant and unrealistic praise can indeed be harmful.
  • A person may be attempting to provoke his or her listeners. There are some people who, for a variety of reasons, become enlivened by an argument. It is often the best way for them to feel connected to others, perhaps because it provides a sense of energy and connection without being too close.

These individuals are often afraid that somebody might come up with a better idea, or somebody does actually know more than them.  These people often feel threatened by others’ knowledge and/or experience.  They are too scared to admit that they indeed don’t have all the answers…

The outcome for the person on the receiving end of a KIA, is possibly the following:

  • Shut-up:  the person gets the message very quickly that new ideas and different thinking are not allowed.  Rather keep your mouth shut and let the “experts” get on with it…
  • Conflict:  when the person is more experienced and have lots of self-confidence, he/she will challenge the KIA – sometimes in a mature manner, but sometimes not.  This can have one of three outcomes:  either the KIA will back-off, or the KIA will adopt a “learn-it-all” attitude and concede that somebody else knows better, or the KIA will stand his/her ground which can easily escalate into a conflict situation.

Having a few KIAs in your the organisation can be detrimental, as one of the biggest dangers for any team is “group think”.  Groupthink is “is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences”. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groupthink for a good discussion and summary of this topic).

Know-it-alls can easily have a very negative impact on a team or individual.  Although they can sometimes be tolerated, when it comes to serious discussions, innovative thinking, and effective problem-solving, these indivuduals can be a huge hamper.

According to (http://www.sanluisobispo.com/living/family/linda-lewis-griffith/article54216415.html), know-it-alls have a number of ways in which they demonstrate their self-ascribed superiority.  These include:

  • Dominating conversations;
  • Offering unwanted advice;
  • Being argumentative in meetings;
  • Bossing loved ones and co-workers around;
  • They can be condescending;
  • They often challenge authority figures;
  • They can engage in pointless debates;
  • They may act cocky (but that doesn’t mean they have an abundance of self-confidence…).

There are many “tips” on how to deal with know-it-alls.  The points below give some ideas:

  • Don’t take it personally.
  • Avoid arguing. You want to rebut what the know-it-all says.  But that locks you into a pointless power struggle. Steer clear at all costs.
  • Use flattery. Know-it-alls crave attention. Express amazement at their broad range of knowledge. Focus on their strengths and let them know how much you appreciate them.
  • Give constructive feedback. Know-it-alls may not realize that their behavior is counterproductive. Encourage them to allow others time to speak. Remind them when negative comments are inappropriate.
  • Set clear boundaries. Express yourself with clarity and decisiveness. If the know-it-all tries to intervene, re-state your plan as often as necessary.
  • Be understanding. Know-it-alls are trying their best. Use patience. Approach them with compassion and respect.
  • Be a good role model. Demonstrate good listening skills. Know-it-alls may pick up on your clues.
  • Give the person a little attention. Use two ways: 1) backtrack their comments with enthusiasm 2) Acknowledge positive intent rather than wasting your time with their content.
  • Clarify for specifics. Ask them for some revealing clarification questions for specifics. Since the Think-They-Know-It-All speaks in huge generalizations you’ll want to question the use of universal words like “everybody” with “Who specifically?”, “always” with “When specifically?”, and “significant” with “Significant in what way, specifically?”
  • Tell it like it is. Redirect the conversation back to reality.
  • Give the person a break. Resist the temptation to embarrass them. Make them an ally by giving them a way out and again minimizing the chance of putting them on the defensive.
  • Break the cycle. Recognize the negative cycle and work with the person to break the cycle. Break the cycle by doing two things: 1) use gentle confrontation to tel lthem the truth about the consequences of their negative behavior 2) Actively look for and notice what this problem person is doing right, and give them credit where credit is due.

(More “tips” can be found here:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/09/09/8-tips-for-dealing-with-a-know-it-all-coworker/#5b65c8638534).

Be aware of know-it-alls in your team, group of friends, and work environment.  Be on the lookout for the specific behaviours of know-it-alls, and know how to deal with hem.

More importantly however:  be mindful not to come across as a know-it-all youreself.   There is nothing wrong with sharing your experience and expertise – as these can be valuable to a team for problem-solving and decision-making.  But being a Mr or Mrs Know-it-all is NOT cool, and instead of getting the admiration of people around you, you actually lose people’s respect and only become an irritation.

As Piet Hein, a Danish scientist, put it beautifully:  “Those who always know what’s best are a universal pest.”

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