Some things never change.
Remember when you were a kid, and there was always at least one of your playmates who seemed to have the answer for everything? It was annoying back then, and not surprisingly, it’s still annoying as an adult—especially in a work setting.
It was easy enough to avoid the playground know-it-all; you probably just ignored him or her and found someone else to play with. But, in a professional setting, it’s not quite so simple. Depending on the dynamics of your team and the relationship with your all-knowing colleague, handling his or her perceived omnipotence can be a delicate manner.
If you’re faced with a know-it-all in the office, try these three strategies to deal, without having to kick sand in anyone’s face.
One of the first times I encountered someone who had all the answers, I was fairly early on in my career, as was she, and I interpreted her knowledge-sharing as a slight against my own experience. I assumed, because she was telling me all about how a certain procedure really worked, she was implying I didn’t know myself.
I took offense—and blurted out something about how everyone in the group knew that, and she wasn’t on to anything new. She was horrified, and soon, I was, too. Turns out, she was simply excited that she’d learned something new and was eager to prove to the rest of the team she was keeping up.
I felt like a complete jerk. Rather than simply joining in on the conversation and sharing my own experience on the topic, I let my ego get in the way and could’ve easily damaged a great working relationship. Fortunately, we both recognized what had happened and changed how we interacted going forward.
Now, when I come across a suspected know-it-all, I remind myself to cool my jets and actually listen to what the person saying—through a professional lens, rather than a personal. I pay attention to what’s being said, and then I use it as a jumping-off point to engage with my colleague. If it feels like someone is telling you his or her way is the only way, ask questions about the process, and share how you’ve been doing things as well. Who knows—maybe between the two of you, you’ll find a way that really is the best!
OK, I know I said playground tactics won’t work in the office, and while that’s mostly true, ignoring your know-it-all colleague is probably a good move when it’s clear he or she isn’t just trying to fit in or collaborate with you.
I’ve worked with a few people like this, but the worst offenders were when I worked for a bank, essentially on a trading desk. (Think long tables with people lined up right next to one anther, with zero space or privacy.) At the time, I was the only woman on the desk, and the fellas enjoyed giving me a good roasting on nearly a daily basis. I have pretty thick skin, so that never bothered me—but when they’d butt in on phone conversations or interrupt me in the middle of complicated assignments to “show me how things are done,” I’d lose my cool pretty quickly.
Initially, I’d unleash my best brand of sarcasm to put them in their place, but that rarely worked. Finally, exhausted from the effort (being sarcastic is hard work!) I channeled my inner playground tactics and decide to try ignoring them instead. Every time they’d offer up their help, I’d smile politely and just keep going about my business. Sometimes, I’d pretend I didn’t hear what they were saying, or I’d get up from the desk for a few minutes until they lost interest. It worked like a charm: Over time, my expert colleagues figured out I actually knew the job as well as they did—if not better—and their helpful advice abated.
If your know-it-all is at a similar level to you professionally and isn’t offering you any valuable advice, try politely changing the subject or excusing yourself to go visit Bob in accounting. Anything to distract your “helpful” colleagues from their all-knowingness. Over time, they’ll get the idea and see that their advice is falling on deaf—and completely capable—ears.
Now, if your wise colleague happens to be someone more superior—say, your boss—handling the situation gets a bit more complicated. After all, your boss is supposed to know it all, right? Yet, there’s just something about how that knowledge is dropped that makes all the difference between being a mentor and being a pain in the ass.
I had a boss many years ago that really knew his stuff. And if it wasn’t apparent by the work he did, he’d make sure you heard about it. If I was working on a complicated transaction, for example, he’d peer over my shoulder at my desk and say things like, “Oh, I wouldn’t do it like that. Let me show you the right way to do this.” I’d been around the block a few times by this point, and I knew I couldn’t just shut him down or try to engage. This left me only one, fairly uncomfortable option: I had to hunker down and take it.
Work isn’t always fun or fair, which means sometimes we have to do things we don’t like for the greater good. In my case, my boss got to feel like he was really coaching me, and although I often ended up doing things my own way in the end, he always felt as if he’d done his job as a manager and mentor along the way. Definitely painful, but a win-win for everyone.
Throughout your career, you’ll no doubt encounter a few know-it-alls, and while they can be pretty pesky, they don’t have to ruin your day. Follow these guidelines to recognize where all that helpful advice might be coming from, who’s giving it, and why, and you’ll be better equipped to handle it like an adult.