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The Problem With Know-It-Alls

November 11, 2002
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Early in my career, I had a boss whose IQ seemed positively stratospheric. Heflew through college, acing courses like Advanced Statistics IV. He taughthimself how to play several musical instruments. He wrote computer programs as ahobby. He was the kind of person who had fun fiddling with Rubik’s Cube, andaccording to the office chatter, he could solve it.

He also was a teacher, though not in the formal sense. Watching Jim inaction, I learned that there’s a fine line between intelligence andintellectual arrogance.

My crash course began about six months into my job as a junior associate at amanagement consulting firm. "I’d like you to read this," Jim said, handingme an article titled "Hunters vs. Farmers." "I’m curious whether youthink we should be hunters or farmers." Then he walked away.

I was a newbie in the work world, eager to please. So I read that articleagain and again and again. I studied it like a monk studying the Bible. I parsedphrases, searched for themes, struggled to comprehend. And I prayed that myanswer would be right.

My boss was the head of the small firm--and by "head," I truly mean thebrains. He was a walking strategic plan, customer database, andperformance-management system all wrapped up in one. He was also a nice guy--notthe type to go around cracking jokes and giving high-fives, but a friendly sortwith a ready smile and kind word.

The day came for our conversation about the hunters vs. farmers article. Isat up straight and tried to look like the person with The Right Answer. Jim satback with assurance and cut to the chase: "So what do you think?"

"Well," I began, "the article was very interesting. The examples werefascinating."

"Yeah, but what do you think? Should we be hunters or farmers?"

The article had described two models for a consulting firm. The hunter firmwas made up of independent sorts who pursued clients and projects much like thehunters of the prehistoric age. Each was rewarded according to individualresults. The farmer firm was more collaborative, with the consultants workingtogether to plant seeds and slowly but steadily nurture the business. Rewardswere a collective proposition.

"Both sides have merit," I said, sounding like someone giving testimonyto a grand jury. "It’s a tough call. But overall, I’d say that the farmermodel makes more sense."

Jim wasted no time in responding. He sat up in his chair, smiled slightly,engaged his massive brain, and went on to tell me why the hunter model was theright answer. He talked and talked, citing the merits of healthy competition,extolling the virtues of personal initiative, droning on about self-sufficiency.


The more he talked, the less I absorbed. All I could hear was my own internal voice, and it was blaring like a car alarm: know-it-all, know-it-all, know-it-all!

The more he talked, the less I absorbed. All I could hear was my own internalvoice, and it was blaring like a car alarm: know-it-all, know-it-all,know-it-all! I waited for his lips to stop moving, then I agreed profusely witheverything he had said.

"Let’s have some more chats like this," he said.

"Sounds good," I responded. Yeah, uh-huh.

Returning to my cubicle, I resolved never to get suckered into anotherone-way conversation. I remained friendly with my boss, yet distant. I stoppedasking questions and playing the devil’s advocate. I did exactly as I wastold, to the point of turning off my brain.

And ever since, my ears have been extra-sensitive to know-it-alls. I’vecome to appreciate the sharp difference between taking a stand and closing yourmind. Between having an answer and believing that you have the answer.

Time and again I’ve seen how know-it-alls shut down dialogue. People feelthat if they take different points of view, their all-knowing colleague willjust refill the bellows and emit more verbal air. Good decisions requiregive-and-take. Know-it-alls just take.

If you’re dealing with your own know-it-all boss or coworker and feelinclined to hunker down as I did, don’t. There are better approaches. At therisk of sounding like a know-it-all myself, let me list a few:

  •  Don’t be too quick to dismiss the know-it-all’s ideas. Even thoughher single-minded approach can be grating and degrading, she just might have theknowledge or information you’re seeking. (Hey, who knows, maybe the huntermodel was the right answer!)

  • Make sure you have an ample supply of data when engaging one inconversation. Guesswork, assumptions, estimates, and hunches won’t be enoughto hold the know-it-all’s attention, let alone to convince him of anything.

  • If you’re seeking information, frame your questions carefully. Bespecific about what you’re asking. Otherwise, the person might go off ontangents-intelligent tangents, but tangents nonetheless-which are frustratingand counterproductive.

  • If you’re in a group setting with a know-it-all, and you want to getinput from participants, go round-robin, with each person given an equal amountof "airtime" to share his or her views.

  • Avoid directly challenging a know-it-all’s facts or interpretation ofthe facts. Instead, try posing a question that can open her thinking. Example ofwhat not to say: "Your data from last quarter can’t be right." Better: "Whatare the sources of that data?" Better still: "What do you think we can do tomake sure our quarterly data is accurate and relevant?"

  • Don’t question or criticize the person’s credentials. Even though youmight have good reason to do so--and it might feel good in the short term--he’slikely to get angry, defensive, and even more difficult to work with in the longterm.

I could end this column right here, leaving you with a tidy list ofstrategies. But in the process of writing the above, I’ve started to ask sometough questions. Do I come across as a know-it-all? Am I encouraging dialogue orshutting it down? Are my ears and mind as open as my mouth? These are questionswe should all be asking ourselves.

Workforce, November 2002, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!


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